Pandemics in Argentina’s Past

With the COVID-19 Pandemic shutting down milongas world-wide, some might ask what effect past pandemics had on tango in Buenos Aires. This article looks into two pandemics that hit Argentina since the birth of tango.

1918 Flu Pandemic in Argentina

“Patient zero” of the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 was actually Gilbert Michell, a cook at Fort Riley military base in Kansas, USA. The virus was then carried to Europe by US soldiers during US involvement in World War I. This H1N1 influenza virus, which is still with us today, got the nickname “Spanish Flu” because the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, was widely publicized at the time to have contracted the illness.

At the time of the 1918 flu pandemic, Argentina’s president Hipólito Yrigoyen kept Argentina neutral and out of World War I. But, many of Argentina’s European immigrants felt compelled to return to Europe to fight for their home countries. Soldiers returning to Argentina could have been one possible source of H1N1 for Argentina.

In October of 1918, Argentina seemed relatively unaffected by H1N1. Few believed the seriousness of the illness and the Argentine press made jokes about it, as seen on this cover art for the Argentine magazine “Caras y Caretas” (Faces and Masks) which depicts a gentleman decked out in various preventatives for the flu.

Later, as alarming reports of the flu came in from countries neighboring Argentina, critics and the press began to suspect that the lack of infections in Argentina was due more to the lack of verifiable statistics than to good luck. Yrigoyen tended to ignore critics and the press on all matters, preferring to stay out of the public eye. But when Yrigoyen finally did take action, the press accused him of alarming the public without having any good data.

Actions taken included medical exams on people arriving from Europe, and quarantining those with flu-like symptoms to Martín García Island in the Río de la Plata. Schools were closed, music halls, public performances, circuses, and entry to cemeteries were prohibited. Meetings in closed spaces were not recommended. Curiously, cafes, bars, confectioneries and brothels could do business, but had to close at 11PM.

In the end, a minimum of 14,997 deaths in Argentina were attributed the 1918 flu pandemic. You can read more about the 1918 flu pandemic in Argentina here.

1968 Flu Pandemic in Argentina

Swing dancing, Rock-n-Roll, and politics had all worked together to reduce the popularity of tango dancing by the time the 1968 Flu Pandemic struck; nicknamed the Hong Kong Flu because the first known instance was in British Hong Kong. Medical science had also greatly advanced by the late 60’s. By the time this H3N2 flu had reached Argentina, a vaccine was already available for it. Just four months into the 1968 flu pandemic, American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman and his team, created a vaccine and more than 9 million doses had been manufactured. Even so, it is estimated that between one and four million people died from the 1968 flu pandemic worldwide.

Here we can see a fashionable couple wearing respirators as they walk about Buenos Aires during the pandemic. Note the fashionable, and very Argentine design, that keeps you protected while not messing up your hair.

The above image was captured from a short film clip made during the 1968 flu pandemic in Buenos Aires which you can watch by clicking here (caution, leads to Facebook).