A centenarian tells the tale of two pandemics


Haeussler, who recently received her first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, notes that there wasn’t any vaccine available for the Spanish Flu during the 1918 pandemic. — TNS

Ursula Haeussler still remembers the frenzy of that day more than a century ago.

She had just sat down for breakfast at the kitchen table as the maid began the morning chores at their home on a small farm in a rural, idyllic German town.

Suddenly, just as the maid began fixing her apron, she collapsed onto the floor.

Haeussler’s uncle and father immediately sprung into action, attempting to revive the unconscious woman before carrying her onto a cart and taking her to the nearest doctor.

The young girl’s mind whirled with confusion, wondering what had just happened.

Only days later did Haeussler – then just a toddler – learn that the maid had died from the Spanish Flu.

Weeks later, the same disease claimed the lives of Haeussler’s uncle and godparents.

“That is all I personally know,” she said of the 1918 outbreak, noting that she was too young to remember anything else.

“But I know it was miserable. Back then there were no vaccines; no one could help it, they just died.”

Today, at 105 years old, she sees the parallels of the Spanish Flu that changed her life and infected one-third of the world’s population, and the Covid-19 pandemic that has already killed more than two million people worldwide.

But this time, there’s a difference.

In a small room at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fremont, California, United States, Haeussler received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

For the first time in a long time, she felt relief.

“We had no way to fight the pandemic back then,” she said of the Spanish Flu.

“They had no vaccine, and all the medical advancements we’ve made, we can be so thankful now.

“I am certainly thankful for the people who gave us the vaccine and risk their own life to do so.”

Then the most severe pandemic in recent history, the Spanish Flu was estimated to have infected about 500 million people after the first outbreaks in 1918 and 1919.

The number of deaths from that particular strain of the influenza virus tallied at least 50 million worldwide, including about 675,000 in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In Germany, about 287,000 people are estimated to have died from the Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1920.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, meanwhile, has infected more than 25 million in the US, a number that is climbing daily with the number of deaths exceeding 440,000, according to the latest health figures (in February 2021).

Disease and unrest

From her home in Fremont, Haeussler recalled that the first pandemic of her life was just the start of a tumultuous 25 years to come.

And in many ways, she said, these days are just as turbulent and similar to the ones she grew up in: a pandemic, protests, economic anxiety and family strife over politics.

She saw it all: the Roaring Twenties in Weimar-era Berlin, the collapse of the world economy, hyperinflation, the rise of the Nazi Party in the ‘30s in Dresden and the loss of everything her family had worked for at the end of World War II.

“It was a constant uproar,” Haeussler said of her time in Berlin in the late 1920s.

“We lived on a big street that connected Potsdam to Berlin. There were always people coming by.

“Brownshirts marching down the street, singing their songs.

“Then came the communists and the anarchists.

“I was at the time 15 years old, so I probably didn’t understand what I was seeing.”

In a warning of the potential far reaching implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, the New York Federal Reserve published last year (2020) a paper linking the 1918 flu pandemic to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and right-wing movements across the world.

It was partly the constant protesting and civil unrest born out of that right-wing fervour that made Haeussler and her family move to Dresden in 1930, at the start of the Nazis’ rise to power.

The social strife that came after the Spanish Flu – and the economic anxieties caused by the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and forced Germany to pay reparations for the war – frustrated everyone at the time, she said.

Though her father did not support the Nazis, there was still a lot of social pressure to follow Adolf Hitler and his movement.

“For instance, my brother – who is six years younger than me – he liked the Nazis because they did all kinds of things for young people,” she said.

“Young people liked Hitler. They all went to the bonfires in the evening. They all sang nationalistic songs.

“We were sad for them, not only because we lost them to him, but because we knew he needed them for cannon fodder.”

Vestiges of the kind of fanaticism that Haeussler witnessed in the '20s and '30s have resurfaced over the past four years in America during former President Donald Trump’s administration, she said.

For Haeussler, the storming of the US Capitol on Jan 6 (2021) was like the Reichstag fire in February 1933 – the Nazi-organised burning of Germany’s legislative building that successfully lifted the Nazis to power.

Lessons learnt

Despite the similarities between her time and ours, Haeussler said the world has learned to better deal with historical events like a pandemic and the economic collapse that followed.

“I feel very horrible that many people do lose their businesses and their possessions,” she said.

“But today is not to the extent you lose completely everything.

“At that time, everything you had saved, everything owned became valueless.

“I hope that this time doesn’t end up being like last time.”

For Haeussler’s daughter Cora Assali, the development of the Pfizer vaccine, in part by the Turkish-German husband-and-wife team of Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, is a testament to how much things have changed and how much more accepting the world is now.

“I think people now understand the value of working together, of everybody working together,” she said. – By Aldo Toledo/The Mercury News/Tribune News Service

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