We’ve all had the flu, but nothing like this:
- 104-degree temperature
- Excessive bleeding from the nose, ears, and eyes
- Coughing fits so violent it often tore the cartilage around the ribs
This was a flu like nothing before and, thankfully, nothing since. It didn’t just hit the very young or the very old. Healthy young adults could die within 10 days. It was called the Spanish flu, but Spain had nothing to do with the flu. (I’ll get to that it a moment.)
So if it didn’t start in Spain, where did it? I’m glad you asked.
The first reported case was March 4, 1918. Private Albert Gitchell checked into the infirmary at Camp Funston (part of Fort Riley), but a country doctor in Haskell County reported several cases two months before Private Gitchell ever saw a doctor. Nevertheless, history considers Gitchell “patient zero.”
It was shortly after that that cases began to be reported in Europe. In April 1918 American troops began arriving on the coast of France to join World War I. Those troops included infected men from Camp Funston.
In America, the flu didn’t stay limited to a small corner of Kansas. Families would visit their sons at Camp Funston, pick up the virus and—with an incubation period of 1-3 days—take it home before they even knew they were infected.
By May—a mere two months later—the flu had infested most of the army bases and the neighboring towns. It was a growing health crisis in the U.S. and Europe, but little was said about it.
That’s right. It was downplayed or not reported. We didn’t want to do anything to dampen morale during the war. The war was weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, so let’s not make it worse by reporting an especially nasty flu epidemic. Let’s not quarantine troops or cancel all the patriotic rallies! (One rally in Philadelphia had 200,000 people show up. Three days later, Philadelphia had no empty hospital beds.)
The media helped downplay the problem. To keep wartime morale up, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “Do not even discuss influenza. Worry is useless. Talk of cheerful things.” Others wrote it off as a “Hun conspiracy.” This was the case in many European countries as well; they were too busy reporting on the war around them. Spain was the first country to give serious public notice to the problem, which is why the virus got the name “the Spanish flu.”
With little warning, then, more and more people were infected, and the epidemic became a worldwide pandemic, the worst in our history. By the time it had run its course, 500 million people had been infected— 1/3 of the world’s population—and 50 million had died.
I wonder how many lives could have been saved if we had taken it more seriously, warned people, and given them the steps to protect themselves and dimish the possibility of infection. How many?
None of us like to hear hard truth. It’s sad. Depressing. It breaks into the comfortable cocoons of the lives we’ve made for ourselves. But it’s still the truth, and ignoring it in no way diminishes the reality of that truth.
As followers of Christ, the One identified as The Truth, we should be on the front lines of making others aware of the truth—even the hard truth others don’t want to hear.
- Sin has consequences and the ultimate consequence is death.
- God is full of more grace and love than we can imagine, but He will not leave our sin unpunished.
- Jesus is The Way—the only way to the Father. Eternal life is that exclusive.
- We can’t make the Bible says what we want it to say. Study it, know its context, and accept its words as God’s unchanging Word.
People are dying. People are straying from God’s hard, but loving truth. It’s time we stopped Joel Osteening God’s Word and only telling people to “think of cheerful things.” It didn’t keep people from physically dying in 1918, and it won’t keep people from dying eternally.
Let’s make others aware of a pandemic. Sin kills. Jesus is the answer. We can speak truth—hard truth—and we can do it with grace and love. Let’s be like Jesus, because when we speak the truth in love, “we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15).
“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6).
Let me share one more hard truth, and it relates to why we should warn others:
“If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay everyone according to what they have done?” (Prov. 24:12).
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