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The Spanish Flu: The Invisible Enemy 2021


Distributed by Docuseek2
Produced by Fatma Tarhouni and Fabienne Servan-Schreiber
Directed by Paul LeGrouyer
Streaming, 52 mins

High School - General Adult
Public health; World War I

Date Entered: 11/08/2023

Reviewed by Kay Hogan Smith, Retired - University of Alabama at Birmingham, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences

Most Americans, while perhaps aware of the devastating Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of World War I and its global impacts, are arguably more familiar with the stories about the pandemic in the United States. This documentary traces in painful detail the spread of the virus from a military camp in Kansas in March 1918 (where it was initially dismissed as the more common strain of mostly non-lethal flu), across packed troop transport carriers to France where it quickly spread across Europe and eventually around the globe, its lethality growing as it mutated. The narration focuses on the importance of the epidemic’s confluent emergence with the final year of the war and the mistakes military leaders made in service of winning the war over containing the virus – for example, the physical closeness of the troops and the initial censorship of flu deaths among the soldiers and sailors. In fact, it was neutral Spain that first disclosed the news of the dangerous virus to the public, for which it earned the dubious honor of having it become known as the “Spanish” flu. By the summer of 1918, the flu had spread worldwide, via shipping routes to remote islands, returning troop carriers to Africa, and even to the Alaskan territory. Spanish Flu: The Invisible Enemy connects the dots between the virus and the far-reaching political impacts it sometimes provoked, such as racial apartheid laws in South Africa and even the harsh Treaty of Versailles, which President Wilson failed to modify after his own severe bout of flu. The Spanish flu would ultimately claim more deaths – about 50 million – than the war itself, with mostly young, healthy adult victims.

The film’s archival footage and news images provide a gripping backdrop for the stories of personal loss, human mistakes and ignorance that viewers of Spanish Flu may well find familiar in the aftermath of another more recent global pandemic. However familiar the tale may or may not be about this historic epidemic, the comprehensive perspective of this film should provide a deeper understanding of both that era and our own. Recommended.

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