QCOSTARICA – It was the month of February 1920 when the first 45 people affected by the so-called Spanish flu were reported, who arrived in Costa Rica through the port of Limón.
Those first cases were treated by Dr. Tony Facio Castro at the United Fruit Company hospital in that province. Nine deaths were recorded.
In Costa Rica at the time there was no health system like the current, the eating habits of Ticos were very poor and there was a lack of drinking water, latrines, and sewers, in a country that the population did not exceed 500,000 people, its economy depended on a single product, coffee, and the country was struggling in a political crisis, after the fall of the Tinoco dictatorship a few months prior.
Also, the consequences of the First World War were still being felt.
The Spanish flu in Costa Rica caused the death of 1,298 people without it being known for sure how many more were infected by the disease characterized by fever, headache, cough, fatigue, muscle and body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, colds, bronchitis, and back pain, among other symptoms.
That is the recount offered by Patricia Vega Jiménez, a history doctor and communicator, who recently completed a comparative analysis of the 1920 and 2020 pandemics: their similarities and differences.
“At that time, the country did not have a health structure like the current one to face the pandemic. Public health depended on the police, therefore it was up to the municipal and local authorities, along with the town doctors and the ‘Hygiene Police’, to confront this epidemic with the few resources available”.
She has scrutinized newspapers, databases and various documents, especially an article by Ana María Botey published in the journal of Latin American studies of the Pablo de Olavide University of Seville, called “The late epidemic of influenza or Spanish flu and its outcomes in Costa Rica ( 1918-1920)”.
Vega Jiménez looks at the great similarities, but also the differences in context in which these pandemics occurred.
The text will soon be published in a Spanish magazine that requested this analysis from the Costa Rican historian, author and co-author of 15 books, dozens of publications and academic texts, national and international lecturer and researcher.
Measures taken in 1920
With few means, the Hygiene Police insisted on persuading the population to avoid mobility.
Both in publications and flyers and in neighborhood meetings, personal and household cleaning was called for and, additionally, to keep roads and public areas in perfect condition; helping poor people with their medicines prescribed by village doctors and registering infected people; However, unlike what happens today, this registry was not centralized.
At the same time, the decision was made to close theaters, temples and cancel the meetings of more than 10 people, as well as dances, walks, and popular festivities.
The school year that was scheduled to begin on March 1 of that year was postponed, and a national emergency was declared as of March 9, 1920, in order to address the health crisis.
The first case of the coronavirus this time around was reported on March 6, 2020.
The affected population was asked to rest a lot, take aspirin, drink mustard and lemon water in large quantities. The Municipality of San José advised residents, through flyers, to adopt all health obligations.
The decision was made to establish a temporary hospital to care for seriously infected people, which was located in the Escuela Normal de Niñas that was in the Metallic building.
“100 years ago there was no radio, television and much less social networks and the Internet, for this reason, only the written media was the one that exhorted the population to comply with the measures emanating from the Superior Health Council, since there was no the Ministry of Health, which was born seven years later, in 1927, nor the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS) that emerged in November 1941”.
As part of the efforts to control the pandemic, authorities distributed food, medicine and disinfectants such as formalin and creolin. Additionally, pharmacies were authorized so that poor people diagnosed by doctors could get their medicines.
Health personnel were asked to use masks, however, according to Vega, no document was found that reported this request to the population, as is the case with the current pandemic.
In 1920, pharmacies advertised the consumption of restorative agents to strengthen oneself, cough syrups such as Guayacol and mixed anti-pneumococcal serum; however, there is no evidence that these products have been distributed among the population.
The media that made such calls were mainly the Diario de Costa Rica, El Heraldo de Costa Rica, El Anunciador, El Imparcial, La Prensa Libre, however, their publications were sporadic, since political news prevailed.
These media also strongly criticized the measures adopted by the competent bodies because they said that they affected the resurgent Costa Rican economy, a product of coffee exports.
In Costa Rica, the Spanish flu pandemic only had one wave that lasted until 1922 and left as it arrived but leaving behind a trail of pain and death in throughout the country.
“The 1920 pandemic helped us to create a health infrastructure capable of giving the country the resources to face other diseases that later affected us, resources that are currently key to overcome covid-19,” said Vega Jiménez.
Misnamed “Spanish flu” in short
- According to world documentation, the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918 has been the most devastating pandemic to hit humanity.
- The texts are not uniform in relation to mortality, as some claim that it produced 40 million deaths, others 50 million. Also, there are publications that indicate that this disease caused the death of 100 million people.
- The origin of the pandemic is not known with certainty, however, it is said that it began at the Fort Riley military base located in Kansas, United States, and later expanded to Europe with the mobilization of soldiers who participated in the First World War.
- The transmission of the disease was directly related to the military movements for the war.
- It was known as the Spanish flu because Spain was the first country to report the presence of this disease.
- It is estimated that this pandemic, caused by the H1N1 influenza virus, infected a third of the world’s population and most of the world’s nations were impacted.