Very few people know that Malta suffered from the Coronavirus pandemic of 1890: but unlike today, our ancestors did not panic.

Very few people have heard about the Russian flu. Not even those studying history are normally taught about this pandemic of coronavirus that hit Europe at the end of the 19th century. Back then, the symptoms of the coronavirus were mistaken for those of the flu, and thus the outbreak was referred to as severe influenza. The most known influenza is the Spanish one and Covid19 has been continuously compared to the latter.  But it seems that this is a wrong historical comparison. Historical research and statistical calculations are showing that the best historical model to study is the Russian flu. It is called the Russian flu because the first case of its type was diagnosed in St. Petersburg in Russia in 1889. It eventually spread like wildfire throughout Europe reaching even Malta.

Both London and Malta were reached in 1890. Malta was hit a few months after London, confirming the continuous flow of people, at a rapid speed that took place between both countries back then. For Malta and London, 1890 was the worst year of the flu. As I explain to my history students, following my course in Maltese historical demography, this illness hit Malta and is recorded among others by Pietro Paolo Castagna. Castagna was a contemporary who wrote that in 1890, an extraordinary illness hit the island which everyone called “influenza”. Castagna says that this bout of influenza dragged on for a whole year and everybody caught it somehow.

Undoubtedly, this type of influenza was not new to Malta as Castagna continues to state that “it is said that this illness already existed once before in Malta in 1510”. (Castagna p. 496) In truth, he is not completely wrong as there are historical records recording another similar type of influenza which in Italian was called “male della gola” that hit Malta in the late sixteenth century. Clearly, the victims suffered from heavy coughing and many of the late 16th century victims died because of respiratory problems. But at least, when these bouts of influenza hit Malta both in the 16th and at the end of the 19th century, they did not drag on for years. The 1890 flu stayed with us for a year. At least, its severity was felt for a year even if modern research is showing that it must have dragged on but the people learned to live with it like most things in life.

What the study of the Russian Influenza is showing is that it was a form of coronavirus. What is interesting about this flu is that its mortality curve is very similar to that of the Coronavirus-19. It takes the form of a J-shape graph. Even the symptoms are very similar. The resulting deaths of the Russian flu were from respiratory complications. Like the Coronavirus, the Russian flu hit Europe through different waves, which are linked to mutations of the virus. Thus, studying this mortality curve and studying how Europe then handled the Russian flu can offer us the solution to get out of all this madness and insanity that our many experts are imposing on the world populations.

Perhaps, in our case, we need to return back to the history of how the Russian flu hit Malta in 1890 to learn better how the medical world dealt with it back then. For sure, once this flu was over, it stopped being considered as the worse type of pandemic to have hit the Maltese islands to the extent that no one continued to speak about it. What we remember most of 19th-century pandemics are the outbreaks of Cholera. This is why history is important, and how wrong it is to deem this subject as unnecessary in our schools.

Scientists and historians are agreeing that the Russian flu was caused by a type of Coronavirus. Malta had this type of virus more than 100 years ago and the medical world did create the initial panic that Covid-19 created but panic did not drag on for years. It was all over after a few months. There was an excess number of deaths when compared to the previous years, but the numbers were not relatively high to merit the tough restrictions that the medical authorities have imposed as in the case of the Covid-19.

But the most important factor is that, back in 1890, the people of Malta were treated with more respect and intelligence than nowadays. People died then as they do now but, back then, Malta’s Council of Government and the British Colonial Authorities took it all in their stride. Today, in 2022, when we ought to know better, all that has been created is confusion. What is worse is that confusion is confounded with crass incompetence with the authorities going north, south, east, and west without any direction thus capitalizing further on a situation where honesty is totally lacking.

Once again, history is helping, through its models and methodology to help us solve our current dilemmas. In the case of the Russian flu, the population had to learn to live with it. This is what our ancestors did 131 years ago. Ten years after its first appearance in London in 1890, it was still active in the UK, in particular during Christmas time. There is no doubt that this was also the case in Malta but the virus was so mild that it ceased to be diagnosed as of great worry and was treated as another form of influenza without being considered of epidemic proportions. And our ancestors were stoic enough to learn to live with it and get on with daily life without much ado.

Herewith is the article in the Daily Telegraph for those who want to learn more about the history of the Russian Influenza of 1889 and how it is related to Covid-19.

Was the Russian flu a ‘coronavirus’? What the 1890s pandemic tells us about how Covid might end

There are some striking similarities between this virus and its 19th century ancestor – perhaps lessons from the past can show us our futureByMark Honigsbaum, MEDICAL HISTORIAN13 January 2022 • 7:13pm

The so-called influenza was blamed on Russia because the first reported outbreak occurred in St Petersburg in November 1889
The so-called influenza was blamed on Russia because the first reported outbreak occurred in St Petersburg in November 1889

The fourth wave of the pandemic, like the three that preceded it, was marked by a dry cough, an intense headache and what one medical correspondent described as “a feverish malaise”. Soon, both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition were confined to their sickbeds and London hospitals were struggling to cope. 

The disease felled burly policemen and Bank of England clerks. At a wedding party attended by 100 guests, it was reported that all but three had fallen ill. 

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a description of the latest omicron strain of Covid-19. In fact, it details the severe wave of illness that swept London during the “Russian influenza” pandemic of the 1890s. The so-called influenza was blamed on Russia because the first reported outbreak occurred in St Petersburg in November 1889. But though some of the symptoms, such as fever, chills and aches, were consistent with flu, an increasing number of scientists believe the Russian flu may have actually been due to a bovine coronavirus.

As with omicron, the majority of infections were mild. But approximately one in a hundred cases resulted in severe illness or death, particularly for those with pre-existing health conditions. Many complained of “a hard, dry cough of a paroxysmal kind, worst at night”. 

Whereas influenza tends to be most fatal to infants and the elderly, with a graph of mortality by age tracing a U-shape, in the case of the Russian flu the mortality curve was J-shaped, reflecting the rising mortality in the over-60s. In other words, similar to Covid.

Much like Covid-19, hospitals were struggling to cope with a surge of cases
Much like Covid-19, hospitals were struggling to cope with a surge of cases CREDIT: Mediscan / Alamy Stock Photo

Russian flu was also associated with inflammatory conditions and fatigue reminiscent of long Covid. Sir Morrell Mackenzie, a Victorian throat specialist, noted that the influenza had a propensity to “run up and down the nervous keyboard stirring up disorder and pain in different parts of the body with what almost seems malicious caprice”. Marked neurological symptoms included intense headaches and shooting pains, as well as a loss of taste and smell.

Four million people in England and Wales were ill during the first wave in the winter of 1889-90, with a recorded 27,000 excess deaths from respiratory diseases. In spring 1891, there was a second, more severe wave, which accounted for nearly 58,000 excess deaths. The winter of 1892 saw a third wave, marked by a further 25,000 deaths. Taking into account a revival in 1893, and the fourth wave in 1895, it was estimated that at least 125,000 Britons had perished.

The parallels are striking. So, if the Russian flu was caused by a coronavirus, what might that pandemic tell us about the likely evolution of Covid-19, and what can we learn from the Victorian experience of living with repeated waves in an era before vaccines and antiviral drugs?

Intriguingly, the Russian flu was preceded by catastrophic outbreaks of a highly infectious respiratory disease in cattle. These led to repeated culling between 1870 and 1890, as farmers sought to prevent the contamination of milk supplies. In an era before refrigeration and pasteurisation, the only way to supply growing urban populations with fresh milk was by bringing cows to city centres – a plausible root for the interspecies transmission of BCoV, or the bovine coronavirus. Thanks to some nifty molecular detective work by Belgian virologist Dr Marc Van Ranst at Leuven University, we know this is closely related to the human coronavirus OC43 with which it shares a common ancestor in around 1890 – suggesting that this is when it probably first jumped from cattle to humans. The date coincides with the first reports of the Russian influenza. 

'Mother in a poor district of London holding an oil lamp so doctor can examine her child, only to be told that it has died from Influenza
Four million people in England and Wales were ill during the first wave in the winter of 1889-90, with a recorded 27,000 excess deaths from respiratory diseases CREDIT: World History Archive / TopFoto

At a time when most medics subscribed to miasma theory – the idea that diseases were the result of poisonous exhalations from the earth carried on the wind – little consideration was given to social distancing or masks. Instead, doctors emphasised the importance of bed rest and a positive state of mind, lest fear become the “mother of infection”.

The Lancet medical journal even went as far as to blame “dread of the epidemic” on the worldwide telegraphic network which, in 1889, had enabled Reuters correspondents to transmit news of the pandemic from St Petersburg well ahead of domestic outbreaks.

Satirical magazine Punch warned: “If you sit all day in your great coat, muffled up to the eyes in a woollen comforter and with your feet in constantly replenished mustard and hot water, as you propose, you will certainly be prepared, when it makes its appearance, to encounter the attack of the Russian Epidemic Influenza, that you so much dread.”

Despite this, there was wide agreement that the infection could cause lung inflammation and that it was imperative to avoid relapses. Those who ignored this advice risked bronchitis and pneumonia. Indeed, one of the most prominent victims was the Duke of Clarence, Queen Victoria’s 28-year-old grandson and the second-in-line to the throne, who died of pneumonic complications from Russian flu in January 1892. His death coincided with Rudyard Kipling’s marriage at All Souls Church, Marylebone – a ceremony, which Kipling recorded, took place “in the thick of an influenza epidemic, when the undertakers had run out of black horses and the dead had to be content with brown ones [and] the living were mostly abed”.

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence
The Duke of Clarence fell victim to the disease CREDIT: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images/ Hulton Archive

A good insight into how Victorians adjusted comes from English social reformer and women’s rights campaigner, Josephine Butler, who suffered recurrent bouts of flu throughout the 1890s.

In December 1891, Butler complained of  “a cough… and a good deal of weakness”. In January 1892, she told her son: “I don’t think I ever remember being so weak, not even after the malaria fever at Genoa.” Six months later, she suffered an attack of pneumonia and pleurisy, leaving her the use of just one good lung.  

Embracing the miasmatic theories, Butler wrote that the Russian influenza had been conveyed to Britain on the “northeast winds”. This suggested that closing doors and shutting windows might be a safeguard. However, others were convinced the disease was contagious and that the best protection was ventilation and the disinfection of letters thought to harbour infectious particles.

If the Russian flu was due to a coronavirus – and it is an “if” – the Victorian experience does not augur well for our present. Epidemiologists estimate that up to 60 per cent of the population was infected in the initial phase between 1889 and 1892. But herd immunity does not appear to have been reached, hence the recurrent waves of illness, marked by high mortality.

“You don’t get herd immunity with coronaviruses,” says Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia. “When you combine that with the clinical evidence, the similarities between the Russian flu and Covid-19 are striking.” 

Indeed, Butler was still complaining of Russian influenza at the turn of the century. She was not alone. 

“Influenza has declined to move westward and become almost a regular Christmas annual,” complained one weary medical commentator in 1900. “A pair of blankets and a pillow, properly applied, still form a complete protection against 99 attacks out of a hundred. But in that hundredth case it will detect and advertise some latent flaw, add the last straw… with fiendish ingenuity and deadly effect.”

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