It seems we’ve been here before.
Inher 2017 book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, journalist Laura Spinney highlights the global experience of the pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people in mere months. Spinney shares poignant perspectives of the pandemic experience in Alaska, Brazil, India, Persia, Spain, South Africa, and the port city of Odessa in Ukraine. Then, as now, regional conflicts, religious ideology, unproven treatments, and political dissent complicated and undermined public health efforts.
Spinney’s exploration of 1918 American news coverage underscores the disproportionate mortality and impact to vulnerable immigrant and Indigenous populations. This aligns eerily to our recent experience of Covid-19; consider that in May 2020, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York state for the highest per-capita infection rate in the USA. Spinney, who writes for The Guardian, also makes the case throughout Pale Rider (and in this recent article), that inequality doesn’t just make pandemics worse — it could cause them.
“What the Spanish flu taught us, in essence, is that another flu pandemic is inevitable, but whether it kills 10 million or 100 million will be determined by the world into which it emerges.”
— Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
A deeper dive into medical history
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, is nearly 20 hours of audiobook listening, albeit narrated with style and suspense by Scott Brick. This title was published in 2004 and remains one of the most comprehensive, well-researched books about the 1918 pandemic, although Barry tends to focus almost exclusively on the American experience.
Barry is not a scientist; he’s a historian. However, his research is so well-respected that he was the only non-scientist appointed to a federal government Infectious Disease Board of Experts, and he now serves on the faculty of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Throughout The Great Influenza, Barry expertly illustrates the perils of misinformation and secrecy — and the deadly consequences to public health and safety.
“Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that. Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”
― John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
Why does any of this matter?
Grasping the facts and lessons of 1918 hasn’t come easily to some. Donald Trump recently said the 1918 pandemic “probably ended the Second World War” — despite the conflict having started almost two decades later. And today’s anti-mask protesters seem oblivious that their stance failed in the political and cultural wars of 1918 and 1919.
I can’t help but believe that if we’d all entered lockdown a bit more informed about pandemic history, we wouldn’t be (re)learning so many lessons the hard way, especially while we try to make sense of how Covid-19 has and will change our world.
More pandemic history resources and reading
- Dispatches from 1918 (July 17, 2020 RadioLab podcast episode).This episode was so fascinating that I listened to it three times. Show writers draw on multiple strands of political and folk history to link the 1918 pandemic to major developments in medicine, modern art, and technology.
- Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker (2017). This book was praised as “a wake-up call’ when it was published; the authors pose a hypothetical pandemic crisis description that is scarily prescient of our own circumstances. A compelling take on understanding the impact and implications of infectious disease on a global scale. Osterholm was alsofeatured on the Joe Rogan Experience on March 10, 2020.
- Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright (2017). Wright explores a colourful retrospective of historic plagues and pestilence, including bubonic plague, dancing plague (not as fun as it sounds), smallpox, syphilis, tuberculosis, cholera leprosy, typhoid, Spanish flu, which was also implicated in the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917 to 1928 (also the focus of the 1973 book, Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks, made into a movie of the same name in 1990, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro).