Reading Pale Rider, Laura Spinney’s 2017 book about the 1918 flu pandemic, during the weeks of the UK government-imposed coronavirus lockdown has drawn my attention to several historical parallels.
For many decades after World War One, the influenza pandemic which came in its final year was a missing part of the narrative. In 1975, Paul Fussell’s widely-praised work of history The Great War and Modern Memory gave it one single mention. It was never included in any of those many World War One dramas until Downtown Abbey in 2011. Spinney points out that the subject as a whole has attracted sustained academic interest only since the 1990s.
There were actually three waves of the pandemic. The first in spring 1918 was generally mild, the second in the latter half of the year was mostly severe and the third in the first part of 1919 was moderate, somewhere in between. However not all countries experienced three waves. The global number of deaths has always been undercalculated: in the 1920s it was thought that figure was 21 million, more than had been killed on the battlefields, but, by the turn of the millennium 80 years later, that had been revised to, at minimum, 50 million.
“There is only one thing we can say with something close to certainty: the Spanish flu did not start in Spain,” says Spinney. Spain was granted that dubious accolade by the victorious powers of Britain, France and the USA because it was neutral during the war and therefore did not censor press reports. This was not the sole example of blaming, however. Persia called it British Flu, Brazil called it German Flu, Senegal called it Brazilian Flu – and Japan called it “Sumo Flu” because it first broke out at a sumo wrestling tournament.
The disease may have originated on the Western Front battlefields. Equally it may have begun in an army camp in Kansas, USA, and travelled to Europe, or in China among the Chinese Labour Corps who went to serve in Europe. Only if the first scenario is correct, then, might the pandemic properly be described as a true product of World War One. However, it was certainly more international than the war as well as more deadly, killing more people on every continent except Europe. Spinney provides detailed synopses about the outbreaks in such disparate locations as Brazil, China, Spain, New York, Persia, Russia, Alaska, South Africa and India.
There are several places in the book where Spinney’s words prefigure eerily those of 2020’s politicians, medical advisers and journalists. For example, “We’re all in this together”, that popular government rallying-call, is a phrase used by Spinney to summarise the human tendency of “collective resilience”, joining a group in times of individual danger and seeing that group as part of him or herself. One reason for the development of “collective resilience”, she suggests, was the earlier centuries of preaching and practice about the importance of charity and family and community by the three major monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So it is interesting, and maybe ironic, then, to recall the comment of the Conservative politician Nigel Lawson thirty years ago that the National Health Service was now the nearest thing which secular Britain had to a national religion. Evidence of this “religious” practice in 2020 has been widespread celebration of the work of doctors and nurses and, equally, widespread criticism that their governments have failed to provide appropriate equipment and protective clothing.
“Social distancing” is a phrase most of us had never heard until this year. Spinney credits the British scientist Ronald Ross as one whose research encouraged the idea as a measure to quell the spread of Spanish flu. This included closure of schools and churches and places of entertainment and the banning of large gatherings. “This was a time before civil rights movements,” she reminds us, “when authorities had more licence to intervene in private citizens’ lives, and measures that would be perceived as invasive or intrusive today were more acceptable”. I share her perspective, so I was astonished that the UK government introduced such restrictions so quickly – and that they were so willingly and widely accepted.
In 1918-1919, “the vast majority… experienced nothing more than symptoms of ordinary flu.” Death tended to follow when Spanish flu was aggravated by bacterial pneumonia. However, the spread was invariably facilitated by prevailing conditions of overcrowding, poor hygiene, and poor health, whether in the tenements of New York or the mines of South Africa or the ships and trains carrying the Chinese Labour Corps across the Pacific Ocean and Canada towards Europe. The UK has seen many improvements in public health and housing within the last century, but it was striking that the government’s Office for National Statistics felt it could not ignore the evidence that coronavirus has had a worse impact within the black and minority ethnic communities, who tend to live in areas of greater social deprivation and to earn lower wages.
Evidence has also been published that a high percentage of the current deaths have been of people who already suffered from weaknesses caused by obesity and poor diet, even though the media are often more attracted to the dramatic exceptions where the cause of death is harder to find.
With Spanish flu, such factors as your country, your underlying health and your living conditions explained to a great extent why you became a casualty, but there did seem also a large element of tragic accident. After all, in some parts of Asia you were 30 times more likely to die than in some parts of Europe. Within the last twenty years, says Spinney, scientists have found evidence that some people have a genetic weakness to the flu virus, for example in the way they are unable to naturally produce interferon, the protein which defends the body against viruses. Other areas of similar genetics research have been reported recently about coronavirus.
Spinney describes the Spanish flu pandemic as something “thoroughly ancient” which undid centuries of progress and took us back to the Middle Ages. “It was if the entire population of the globe…had been transported back several millennia.” No surprise that our own further advanced world has been traumatised even more thoroughly by coronavirus.
However, back then, people were more accepting of life’s trials. opines Spinney. Perhaps, too, they were a bit braver, because death was usually closer and more frequent, and maybe, too, because religious faith was stronger.
At time of writing, most people in Britain seem to prefer that the state-imposed quarantine, despite all its stresses and restrictions, be extended, and this seems to be emboldening each of the UK and Scottish governments, both now nervous rather than cautious, to follow them.
Reference : Spinney, Laura (2017) Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World London: Jonathan Cape