Sunday Morning! “Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918” by Laura Spinney
The Spanish Flu almost certainly did not originate in Spain. It’s nearly impossible to find “patient zero” for most pandemics, including this one, but the first recorded case of Spanish Flu was in an Army camp in Kansas in March, 1918: a mess cook came in with the symptoms and by the end of the day, there were more than a hundred cases. The flu would spread throughout the United States and France before appearing in Spain, where it was called the “Venetian soldier”. Every country had a different name for it. The reasons the “Spanish” moniker went down in the historical record are numerous: owing to wartime censorship, the health official who first identified it in Spain didn’t realize it had broken out elsewhere; King Alfonso XIII of Spain fell ill early and was highly publicized; racism was rife in the era; most of all, the Great Powers who won the First World War were partial to the name, so it stuck.
Do you have any books lying around that you keep intending to read once the time is right? Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider: the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world” is one of those books for me; I’ve had it on the shelf for a few years and, well, the time suddenly seemed right. Like the rest of the world, I am spending the hours in which I am not working — cleaning and sanitizing public spaces suddenly seems much more important — at home, quietly reading, watching movies, and panicking.
The Spanish Flu is often treated as a sort of subplot to the Great War in modern histories, but it was, as Spinney puts it, the “greatest massacre of the twentieth century”, infecting 500 million people- one in three humans alive- and killing between 50 million and 100 million. The battlefields of Europe were an ideal networking event for the virus, and it actually peaked three (possibly four) times before finally dying out by the end of 1920. There is a grim irony that the third peak corresponded with the armistice celebrations when great masses of people were in the streets celebrating.
My great-grandfather actually caught the Spanish Flu while interviewing soldiers at war’s end, and he survived it. Most people did survive; nevertheless, the outbreak of the pandemic was a shock in every country; “Painful readjustment, demoralization, lawlessness” were common. The germ theory of the previous century had bred a sort of hubristic faith in science that was shattered, and popular skepticism about science, states, and authority was heightened. The poor and immigrants were the most vulnerable, due to the health conditions in which they were already living, and possibly the most vulnerable to misinformation. Fatality rates varied widely around the globe due to things like nutrition levels, cultural practices, and social interactions. Very little has changed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people responded to the outbreak irrationally. In the Spanish city of Zamora, the faithful were asked to make a novena to St. Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence, and many lined up to kiss his relics. In Odessa, the Jewish faithful held a “black wedding” in which two of the most indigent beggars were married in a cemetery before a teeming crowd. In China, figures of “dragon kings” were paraded through towns while a racket was made in hopes of scaring off evil spirits. Those of us who recall the outbreak of the last major pandemic, AIDS, will remember the common “explanation” that plagues are the “wrath of God”. The notion of religious figures telling the faithful that an epidemic is a conspiracy against the political leader is something of a historical anomaly, perhaps most comparable to the belief the French King could cure “scrofula”.
Interesting enough, others did the wrong thing in 1918 by acting with compassion, or what psychologists call “collective resiliency”. Spinney points out: “Your best chance of survival was to be utterly selfish.” Instead, many tried to help the sick and became sick themselves. It is something of a relief to learn that “civilization” did not break down to the extent one might expect and petty crimes were both widespread and fairly limited. Here, in Southern Ontario, I have seen far more responsible behavior and collective support than the random crimes and melees sensationalized online.
In 1918, there were also “social distancing” measures taken at the national level: “Schools, theatres, and places of worship were closed, the use of public transport systems was restricted and mass gatherings were banned.” I was interested to hear how many cities felt it was safer to keep children in school, where their health could be monitored, than to send them home to poorly-equipped, often neglectful parents. The practice of quarantine- invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century to deal with ships and named after the forty days (quarantena) required- is harder to enforce by law than simply giving the public accurate information about why they should stay inside; no surprise there. We learned from the 1918 plague that “censorship and playing down the danger don’t work; relaying accurate information in an objective and timely fashion does.” Well, most of us learned.
Today, the H1N1 Spanish Flu resides in a high security facility in Georgia, revived in 2005 for purposes of study. It’s fascinating reading the last chapters of the book, in which Spinney details efforts to prepare for “future” pandemics, in light of current events. Some of the recommendations developed by epidemiologists have been heeded, many have been selectively ignored, and the differences seem to come down to money. In general, while it’s nearly impossible to stop the outbreak of a disease, you can mitigate its impact greatly by acting quickly, smartly, and effectively. Act quickly, test widely, inform the public, and keep people away from crowds; none of these would be considered an easy task.
And, in the end, pandemics have long and lasting effects. Spinney details how the Spanish flu fueled the Indian independence movement and might well have tilted the war against Germany. It’s strange how long the Spanish Flu has taken to climb out from under the shadow of the First World War, which only killed 17 million people; one suspects the impacts of coronavirus will be deeper and longer lived. It already feels like we’ve left the “pre-coronavirus” world behind forever.
One last note: in the wake of the 1918 pandemic, US life insurance companies paid out the equivalent of $20 billion. One recipient was the widow and son of a German immigrant to America, who used the money to start investing in real estate. The immigrant’s grandson is Donald Trump.
So, what are YOU reading, watching, pondering, playing, or creating in lock down this weekend?