The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life
Devastating killer that ravaged a war-torn world
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu Of 1918 And How It Changed The World BY LAURA SPINNEY Jonathan Cape, £20
PUBLIC information campaigns are often peculiar: the Americans created a cartoon turtle to warn about nuclear attack and the British used a hooded figure to scare children away from water. They might be silly, like the recent healthy eating scheme suggesting we draw happy faces on fruit. And sometimes, official guidance is simply wrong.
When the Spanish flu arrived in the city of Zamora, the authorities gave conflicting advice. People were instructed not to gather in crowds but were also told when they might attend mass to pray for their sick, and one cathedral in this deeply Catholic part of Spain invited its coughing congregation to come forth and kiss the statues of the saints. Spain may have thus helped spread the Spanish flu but, despite its name, the virus had nothing to do with the Spaniards. The sickness appeared during the First World War when most Western countries had imposed press censorship. Fearing morale would be damaged by talk of disease, they forbade mention of this new pandemic but Spain, not being at war, reported freely on its cases, giving the rest of the world the impression it was a Spanish plague.
The fighting nations were happy to encourage this. Every country blamed someone else. In Spain, it was known as the Naples soldier. In Brazil it was the German flu. The Poles blamed the Bolsheviks, the Persians the British, and the Japanese blamed their wrestlers, calling it the Sumo flu. No-one wanted to own it and, even now, we don’t know where it originated.
Because the first cases appeared in 1918, chronology relegates the Spanish flu to being a “footnote” of the Great War, but a glance at the staggering numbers prove that’s a lazy conclusion. One hundred million may have died. It’s possible it killed more than the two world wars combined, making it “the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death, perhaps in the whole of human history”.
Yet it’s overshadowed by the wars. It has no anniversary, monument or museum. It wasn’t experienced as a communal national cataclysm but as a scattering of individual bereavements. Neither can its horrors be pinned to a place, like Ypres, Auschwitz or Stalingrad. Its deaths took place in bedrooms and wards across the globe with nothing to link them. What did a French soldier convulsing in a hospital have in common with a Chinese peasant dying in a field?
There is no convenient unifying factor, so we have let the Spanish flu subside into history. In this book, the science writer Laura Spinney tries to correct this by showing the enormity of the pandemic and its legacy. Although this is a science book, it is never dense or technical because Spinney is also a novelist and uses her literary flair to tell vivid tales of the flu’s devastation. These are not just horror stories; they transform the countless deaths from ungraspable statistics into tragedies.
So we enter a graveyard in Odessa where a “black wedding” is being conducted. This was an ancient Jewish ritual to fend off plague, with the bride and groom chosen from among “the most frightful cripples, degraded paupers and lamentable ne’er do wells” of the community.
The strange rite was performed in panic because the new flu had uniquely hideous symptoms. It provoked violent agitation and breathing difficulties, after which two red spots appeared on the sufferer’s cheekbones. If these blotches spread and then darkened into black, death was near. “The black first appeared at the extremities – the hands and feet, including the nails – stole up the limbs and eventually infused the abdomen and torso. As long as you were conscious, therefore, you watched death enter at your fingertips and fill you up.”
These memorable narrative sections relate further horrors
in China, Alaska and Rio and are the most vigorous parts of the book, but when we enter the dutiful chapters on germ theory, drugs and research Spinney is still engaging, delivering the necessary science in the tone of a trendy lecturer who is chatty and informal but always authoritative.
Finally, we see how the flu changed the world: arguably it swayed the course of the First World War by incapacitating 900,000 German soldiers, and it may have indirectly caused the Second by disabling key negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference. It pushed governments towards offering state healthcare, the sudden glut of orphans changed rules about adoption, and by killing a German immigrant, whose widow wisely invested her insurance payment in real estate, it gave us Donald Trump.
But we still fail to acknowledge it. The postwar world created treaties, organisations and protest groups to prevent global conflict recurring, yet the century’s biggest killer may have been something else entirely. This fascinating, frightening book will begin to redress that dangerous historical imbalance.