New York

New York Rent Strikes During the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza

Yves here. The fight over rent, and more generally, who bears the cost of catastrophic economic damage, shows how little has changed from a century ago to now. But it is also important not to lose sight of the differences.

One aspect of the Spanish flu versus our coronavirus is that we are taking a much bigger economic hit. Even though that era was well before the compilation of GDP data, most historians peg the global economy as growing even during the Spanish flu. One factor was that there was vastly less tight coupling, in the form of extended supply chains, so damage to one region or country wouldn’t propagate anywhere near as much to others. The second was that there was apparently some hang-over stimulus in the form of completing war-related payments. The third may be that the impact on the availability of labor was dampened by the end of the war. Millions of men had gone to Europe to fight, and thus weren’t working at home. The ones that returned unmaimed could fill slack created by Spanish flu deaths. And labor was much less specialized then, and most employees expected to train their workers in the cases where it was.

But it is also easy to forget that class divisions were even sharper back then, with immigrants and the poor living in slums, and violence regularly used against labor activists. But this was more of a two-way street back then. Those who had been hurt by landlords were more willing to engage in destruction, not just of their unit but also of the landlord’s home.

By Michael Richmond, who is co-writing a book on the history of class composition in Britain and the US over the last two centuries that centres race, gender and borders in processes of class formation and exclusion. He tweets from @Sisyphusa. Originally published at openDemocracy

As we’ve now become accustomed to hearing, COVID-19 is the worst pandemic in over a century, when “Spanish” influenza tore through a war-weary world in several waves across 1918-1919. Fifty million or more lives were claimed worldwide by the flu, close to twenty million people died on the Indian Subcontinent alone. Varying estimates have between 1-5% of the global population losing their lives, dwarfing the number who died in combat over the course of the calamitous war with which it had overlapped. The illness was characterised by the rapidity with which it took hold. What’s more, it could be transmitted before vectors showed any sign of symptoms. “Spanish” influenza disproportionately killed young adults who accounted for more than half of deaths overall, with pregnant women being particularly cruel and common victims.

The catastrophe of influenza joined a world already on fire. Not only did the war rage on till the end of 1918, revolution was fighting for its survival in Russia as domestic and foreign forces tried to crush it. Anticolonial movements against British rule intensified in Egypt, India, and Ireland. Postwar attempts at social revolution would ultimately be crushed in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere. The class war also raged in New York City throughout the height of the pandemic and it is there that we will turn our attention.

New York Flu

New York was, by 1918, the second most populous city in the world, behind only London. The city suffered its first peak of the virus in the Spring and a much worse one in the Autumn, part of a deadly second wave globally. Both officials and the press were complacent about the outbreak, their primary focus was on keeping up morale for the war effort. Government and media campaigns abounded, encouraging patriots not to allow fear of the flu to defeat them. The city’s health officer, Royal Copeland, initially saw no danger in the epidemic, despite New York being the country’s largest port and main entry and exit point for US troops. Copeland was confident the illness would not affect “a well-nourished people”, disregarding the fact that many impoverished New Yorkers were malnourished.

On October 12, in an event that would become emblematic of official complacency and recklessness, President Woodrow Wilson led a parade of 25,000 people down Fifth Avenue to boost morale and encourage Americans to invest in war bonds. Dissenting voices warned at the time that public gatherings such as this would wreak havoc but they were ignored. Infection and fatalities would reach their peak later that month and a third wave would strike that continued into the new year.

Measures were eventually put in place to mitigate the spread of infection. Some businesses and

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