100 Years Ago, the Spanish Flu Hit Venezuela

In 1918 this influenza pandemic wiped out the world. In Venezuela, it found a vulnerable country with irresponsible leaders, that hid away until the disease mysteriously faded out in early 1919. A hundred years have passed, but the country hasn’t changed that much.

Photo: El País retrieved

Stay away from him, be careful, don’t go into his room without a mask and keep his dishes and cutlery away from the rest… You don’t know, it may be the Spanish flu again”.

According to my grandma, that’s what her mom said every time she saw someone sneezing or coughing. The memories from the disease that hit the world—including her native Paraguaná peninsula—when she was only 12 years old, never abandoned her.

2018 marked the hundredth anniversary of one of the deadliest catastrophes faced by mankind. The 1918’s influenza pandemic killed about 5% of the world’s population, including some 25,000 deaths in an extremely impoverished and backward Venezuela, where malnourishment and an inexistent public health network paved the road for disaster. The pandemic began that January, probably in the United States or China, and reached Europe quickly after, with the troops fighting the last battles of World War I. By 1920 it had infected some 500 million people all around the globe, and killed between 50 and 100 million of them, including people like Austrian painters Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. It was caused by a particularly virulent strain of the AH1N1 virus. Due to its wide press coverage in Spain—where war censorship wasn’t established—it received its misleading nickname.

The 1918’s influenza pandemic killed about 5% of the world’s population, including some 25,000 deaths in an extremely impoverished and backward Venezuela.

The disease reached Venezuela in September 1918, through the port of La Guaira, after spreading through the Caribbean from Puerto Rico. But the first cases, reported in Caracas and Maiquetía, were quickly hidden from the population and from President Juan Vicente Gómez, who lived in Maracay and didn’t appreciate being bothered with “scandals”, as described in the memories of writer and Gómez’s political prisoner, José Rafael Pocaterra.

“The reality of what’s happening in La Guaira has been greatly exaggerated… It’s only a cold that lasts for some two days,” said Ignacio Andrade, Goméz’s Minister of Interior in a private telegram for the Benemérito, on October 16th, when 40 soldiers stationed at La Guaira got sick. The next morning sanitary authorities already counted 500 cases in Vargas alone and the situation became impossible to hide. A week later patients with the typical fever, cough, vomits, chills and muscle aches were being reported in Cojedes, Carabobo, Falcón, Bolívar, Zulia, Táchira, Mérida and Trujillo.

One of the rooms reserved for influenza patients at the Vargas Hospital, Caracas, 1918. Image retrieved.

Improvised hospitals were quickly established in homes around Caracas, schools and churches were closed, and public meetings were forbidden all over the country. The government named a national Junta de Socorro (Relief Board), with representatives in every state of the country, and presided by Dr. Luis Razetti, arguably the most prominent Venezuelan physician at the time.

Improvised hospitals were quickly established in homes around Caracas, schools and churches were closed, and public meetings were forbidden all over the country.

Voluntary students distributed medication and food among the patients all over Caracas, under the board’s direction. But knowledge on how to treat the disease was limited and little progress was achieved. Most patients were given castor oil and ipepac syrup, now known to have no beneficial effects for the ill.

The situation in Venezuela at the time was bleak. Like today, malaria, diphtheria, and tuberculosis were great public health problems for an almost non-existent healthcare network. Most of the almost 3 million inhabitants at the time were poor and malnourished, making them particularly vulnerable to the disease. As they began to die, squads of gravediggers were formed in all major cities to deal with the growing number of corpses. By November, up to 98 deaths were reported per day in Caracas alone, and most of those bodies were buried in a mass grave at the city’s South General Cemetery.

The grave, now scourged by tomb raiders, is still known as La Peste (The Plague).

President Gómez had remained in Maracay since before the outbreak, away from the hellish scenes seen in Caracas. But when the disease reached the city by late October, he quickly moved to San Juan de los Morros, and refused to see his son Alí, who fell sick and died in Maracay in November 9th. Armando Reverón, the famous Venezuelan painter also got the disease, but unlike Gómez’s son, he survived.

“While Caracas fed, cured and even sent money and resources to the interior of the country, already affected by the epidemic, Gómez, his family and his ‘janissaries’ devoured beef chops in San Juan de los Morros, waiting for the previously disinfected newspapers from the Capital, to know about those ‘central brutes’ who were dying,” wrote Pocaterra about the president’s stay in Guárico as the epidemic hit Caracas.

Eventually deaths started to decline, almost as abruptly as they appeared, both in Venezuela and around the world. To this date, no one really knows why, but a theory is that the virus’ lethality (it killed most of its hosts too fast to efficiently spread the disease) made it unsustainable and prompted the appearance of a less lethal strain.

“I’m glad to inform you that yesterday we only reported 25 cases and 9 deaths between this capital, Tinaquillo, Tinaco and El Pao, among the 1,500 patients registered,” said José Felipe Arcay, president of Cojedes State in a telegram meant to General Gómez, and sent from the city of San Carlos on November 25th. Some 700 deaths are believed to have occurred in Cojedes.

By January 1919, four months after the first cases were reported in Caracas, the Spanish flu practically disappeared from Venezuelan territory, leaving some 25,000 deaths behind. Some isolated cases were reported as far as June 1919 and the pandemic wouldn’t remit completely until 1920, having killed more people than the war that made its spreading possible.