The 1918 Spanish flu outbreak killed more people than both world wars. Dont imagine such a thing could never happen again, says the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle
This year marks a century since some women got the vote; a century since the end of the first world war; 50 years since the 1968 rebellions; 70 since the founding of Israel and the NHS. All have been well marked. So it is striking that the centenary of one of the most devastating events in human history has been allowed to pass thus far with virtually no public reflection of any kind.
This year is the 100 th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Calculates about the potential impact vary. But when you read that a third of the entire global population probably caught the Spanish influenza and that it killed between 50 and 100 million people in all corners of the globe- up to 5% of all human being on countries around the world at the time – you get an inkling of its scale.
By the time the pandemic ultimately ended, it had killed around 25 times more people than any other flu outbreak in history. It killed perhaps more people than the 1st and 2nd world wars put together. As Laura Spinney puts it in her new book, Pale Rider– the best modern account of the Spanish flu crisis-” the influenza resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death “. Think about that. Not the western front , not Hitler’s invasion of Russia , not Hiroshima. But the flu.
In the face of such figures, it seems unbelievable that we forget or look away. Yet we do. Perhaps that is because, unlike equality for women, a disease has no ultimate award to win and celebrate. Perhaps it is because, while wars have conquerors, pandemics leave only the vanquished, as Spinney sets it. Perhaps too, as the critic Walter Benjamin once argued, stillness about public horrors can permit human societies to cope with collective recovery and to advance. Or perhaps, as Spinney also reflects, the Spanish flu has been consigned to the footnotes because its onslaught did not occur in public but in private, behind closed- door in millions of homes.
Yet the Spanish flu epidemic was a public event too. It changed the course of the first world war( the Germans thought it robbed them of victory ). It brought Switzerland- yes, Switzerland- to the brink of civil war over the inadequacy of the official response. The route it was mishandled in colonial India devoted a major boost to the independence motion. It resulted directly to the founding of Real Madrid football club as part of a Spanish public health drive. In Britain, in a sense, it triggered a concern about public health that would result, 30 year later, to the NHS.
The flu struck the rich and the poor, the young and the old, women and men, black and white. Among the individuals who caught it but recovered were the British prime minister David Lloyd George, the US president Woodrow Wilson, the German kaiser, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain- whose country dedicated its name to the disease for no better reason than that the French, unable to learn about the scale of the infection in their own country because of wartime censorship, thought wrongly that it had started on the far side of the Pyrenees. The naming has caused offence in Spain from that day to this- and has belatedly led to greater care in the naming of subsequent strains and outbreaks that traverse borders.
For this was a disease that scorned all human frontiers. It killed from Alaska to Zanzibar. Groucho Marx caught the flu in New York and Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad. The future Mustafa Kemal Ataturk went down with it in Vienna. Haile Selassie fell ill in Addis Ababa. TS Eliot got the flu in London- he wrote The Waste Land as he recovered. Other victims who recovered included Franklin Roosevelt, Lillian Gish, Franz Kafka, DH Lawrence, Bela Bartok, Walt Disney, Ezra Pound and the aviator Amelia Earhart. In Colorado, Katherine Anne Porter’s black hair fell out as a result of flu. When it grew back her hair was white and Porter went on to write a memoir, Pale Horse, Pale Rider about the pandemic.
The list of those who died of the influenza is less storied than those who recovered from it. It is headed by the painter Egon Schiele and his wife. The Parisian poet Guillaume Apollinaire succumbed too, as did one of Lenin’s right-hand men, Yakov Sverdlov. So did Lawrence of Arabia’s father, Arthur Conan Doyle’s son and Donald Trump’s grandfather. A celebrated British casualty was the diplomat Mark Sykes– now famous( or infamous) for the secret Sykes-Picot agreement he struck over spheres of western influence in the Middle East.
Ten years ago, in 2008, Sykes’s coffin, lead-lined because of the virulence of the disease, was disinterred from his grave in Yorkshire. The intent was to enable researchers to take samples, from his remains, of the H1N1 virus strain that caused the Spanish influenza. Such samples , now under high-security lock and key in Atlanta, have been examined for clues as to why this stres was so potent and how a future pandemic might be contained.
For there will be another Spanish flu pandemic one day. The 1918 outbreak resulted because the viral stres acquired the ability to infect humans and then to become transmissible among humen. Other strains have that potential too. Global warming may empower the strongest ones still further. The world of 2018 is infinitely more interconnected than that of 1918. The possibilities for blaming particular social groups for pandemics is vast.
Last week the Ebola virus spread from a remote rural part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the busy river port town of Mbandaka. A few hundred kilometres downstream from Mbandaka lies DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, a mega-city of some 11 million people. Unlike flu, which is airborne, Ebola is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. That is threat enough in war-torn cities without proper sewerage.
So far, the DRC outbreak seems controllable. Yet more than 11,000 people died in west Africa from an Ebola outbreak in 2014. And imagine if Ebola manages one day to become airborne, as flu did. If something like that happened in the modern world, we would rapidly find we were living in a fools’ paradise. And our present habit of forget and seeming in the other direction would seem a catastrophic act of global folly.
* Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist
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