Tensions are rising as nations around the world struggle to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus and stave off economic collapse. Meanwhile, in poor war-torn nations like Yemen, the impact of the virus is likely to dwarf current hot spots in wealthy nations at peace. Yet in the United States, small groups, some armed or bearing Confederate flags, are protesting state social distancing measures and business closures, pressuring some governors to ease restrictions prematurely, according to public health experts. While the United States is unlikely to erupt in civil war — polling shows the country is largely complying with and supports the measures to contain covid-19 — the language and images of civic unrest are troubling.
Indeed, if there is one thing that can make a virus more contagious, it is civil war. Anything that gets people to turn against their government or fellow citizens — even short of war — exacerbates pandemics.
We need look no further than what happened to Mexico during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic to see how this is true. It struck Mexico far harder than the United States or Europe, both then embroiled in World War I, because of the internal conflict that preceded the outbreak.
One hundred years ago, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 that toppled a dictator and ushered in unprecedented social reforms — like widespread land redistribution — ended. It came at a steep cost: From a population of 14.5 million, at least 1 million people are estimated to have died. Seven years of bloody battles, coups, assassinations, U.S. military incursions and localized epidemics played their part, but it was not until the spring of 1918, during a year of relative calm, that a far more efficient global killer snuck south across the border from Laredo, Tex., and began its rampage.
Between the spring of 1918 and the winter of 1919, an estimated 500,000 Mexicans lost their lives to influenza — about 3.33 percent of the population. By comparison, the United States, with a population of approximately 100 million, lost 675,000 people to that pandemic. This means that the fatality rate was five times as high in Mexico. Indeed, the Mexico City daily El Nacional reported in October 1918 that “there is not one family in Mexico that has not had at least one sick member.”
The numbers defy the popular American narrative of the 1918 pandemic: that it was a consequence of troop movements during World War I and that the European countries fighting in the war were the epicenter of the outbreak and fared the worst. Britain, France and Germany — countries on the front lines of WWI’s horrors — collectively suffered far lower mortality rates (about 1.1 percent) than the rest of the mostly colonized and semi-colonized world (between 2 and 4 percent).