Fear and fever

Doc­u­men­tary-maker An­drew Thomp­son ex­plains why the 1918 Span­ish flu pan­demic holds lessons for to­day

BBC History Magazine - - Tv & Radio -

“The events of 1918 teach us just how bad an­other pan­demic could be”

Pan­demic TV BBC Two sched­uled for Septem­ber

One hun­dred years ago, as Span­ish flu spread like wild­fire across Bri­tain, Doc­tor James Niven jumped into ac­tion. While Bri­tain’s gov­ern­ment re­mained ret­i­cent to deal with the threat head on, Niven tire­lessly dis­trib­uted pub­lic health leaflets across Manch­ester and cam­paigned for the clo­sure of the city’s busi­nesses and schools.

Niven’s story is just one of many fea­tured in Pan­demic, a new BBC doc­u­men­tary that brings the 1918–19 out­break to life through the eyes of those who ex­pe­ri­enced it first-hand.

Through his for­ward-think­ing use of pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures, “Niven prob­a­bly saved more lives than any­one else in the UK”, says An­drew Thomp­son, the pro­gramme’s di­rec­tor and pro­ducer, “but he was fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle”. White­hall mem­o­randa to pre­vent the spread of in­fec­tion were shelved as they were deemed to threaten the war ef­fort, while after the dis­rup­tion of the con­flict, peo­ple were keen to re­turn to their nor­mal rou­tines, un­en­cum­bered by in­con­ve­nient pub­lic health pre­cau­tions.

By the time the Span­ish flu had fi­nally sub­sided, the es­ti­mated global death toll stood at 100 mil­lion – more than both world wars com­bined. Yet de­spite this stag­ger­ing statis­tic, Thomp­son ar­gues that the cat­a­strophic event is of­ten for­got­ten in nar­ra­tives of the 20th cen­tury. “It’s an enor­mously im­por­tant moment in his­tory, but it’s some­what un­der-re­ported, prob­a­bly be­cause it was over­shad­owed by the First World War,” he says.

And 100 years on, the story is just as im­por­tant as ever. Ac­cord­ing to Thomp­son, the show is “not just an­other his­tory les­son. Un­der­stand­ing what hap­pened back in 1918 is of di­rect rel­e­vance for sur­viv­ing a fu­ture pan­demic. Speak­ing to vi­rol­o­gists, it be­comes very clear that there will be an­other one sooner or later, and the events of 1918 teach us just how bad it could be.” It’s an omi­nous thought, but one that clearly made an im­pres­sion on the pro­gramme mak­ers. “Talk­ing to the ex­perts was sur­pris­ingly scary,” Thomp­son re­calls. “By the end of the film, all the crew felt like go­ing out to make our last will and tes­ta­ments.”

Pan­demic is part of a wider se­ries of BBC pro­grammes look­ing back on the Span­ish flu. On Ra­dio 4, The Last En­emy (Septem­ber) shares more sto­ries of those caught up in the out­break.

A man douses the top of a bus with anti-flu spray dur­ing the Span­ish flu pan­demic. A new doc­u­men­tary re­veals that more could have been done to pre­vent the disease spread­ing

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