Tuesday 17 March 2020

The Grim Tutorial Of The 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic.

Forgotten Precedent: If you look hard, it is possible to locate memorials to the victims of the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic. For the most part, however, the horrors of those dreadful months were simply rolled-up with all the other bloody horrors of the war. In popular memory, these two, equally traumatic, global experiences merged into a single tragic narrative which was now – praise be to God! – over. Best not to dwell. Best not to ask too many questions. Best not to learn too many lessons.

WHY WERE SO FEW lessons learned from the deadly Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19? The current best estimate of the death toll from “Spanish Flu” (which actually originated in the United States) is 50-60 million – many times the number of people killed in the First World War. With the global population estimated at 1.8 billion in 1918, the Spanish Flu killed 3.0 percent of all the human-beings on earth. In the face of such stunning mortality, national governments might have been expected to pledge themselves to doing all within their power to prevent a recurrence. Why is it that in every city, town and village of New Zealand memorials abound to the 18,000 men who fell during the four years of the First World War, while only a handful recall the 9,000 victims who perished in just six terrifying weeks at the peak of the 1918-19 pandemic?

The answer lies in the extraordinary degree of censorship imposed upon their citizens by all the governments engaged in the First World War. In order to “maintain morale” on “the home front” it was considered vital to shield the families and friends of the men in the trenches from the realities of industrialised warfare. Great Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, famously told a journalist friend: “If the people really knew [the truth] the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”

That they were required to post casualty lists numbering in the tens-of-thousands was bad enough. Belligerent governments (including our own) were absolutely determined to keep the soldiers’ loved ones in blissful ignorance of the way their sons, brothers and husbands had died – and of how little was gained by their sacrifice.

As the death-toll mounted and the horrors of the war multiplied, political and military leaders found themselves holding a tiger by the tail. They had kept so much hidden, from so many, for so few tangible gains, that they had no option but to keep hiding the truth from their respective peoples. To make their job easier they cultivated an atmosphere of extreme intolerance for any behaviour or expression capable of being construed as dissent or disloyalty. Those found guilty of opposing the war (future New Zealand prime ministers among them) were imprisoned. Kiwi conscientious objectors – most famously Archibald Baxter – suffered the infamous tortures of “Field Punishment No. 1”.

It was into this fraught environment that an avian variety of influenza crossed the species barrier into pigs, and then into humans, on a Kansas farm early in 1918. “Patient Zero” was an infected farm boy who carried the virus with him to military training camp, from whence it travelled with infected troops to the battlefields of France and Belgium. In a terrifyingly short period of time it had been carried back into the home countries of the infected soldiers. The death toll rose relentlessly and exponentially: the virus killed hundreds, then thousands, then millions.

And the authorities deliberately muted their official response. In Britain and its empire especially, which was staring down the barrel of a German victory in the early months of 1918, the political and military leaders were desperate to keep any suggestion that, back home, their loved ones were falling like ninepins from their fighting men. With revolution raging in Russia, Allied politicians were in no mood to allow the Bolshevik “virus” to spread.

In frightening anticipation of the policy of the current British government, the pandemic was simply allowed to “let rip” among Britain’s helpless and unprotected population. Perhaps the most tragic moment came on Armistice Day, the 11 November 1918, when hundreds of thousands of citizens were permitted to gather in the streets, hugging and kissing, to celebrate the war’s end. It is difficult to imagine a more effective way of hastening the virus’s spread!

Obviously, local measures were taken to keep people safe, but with censorship still in place, the pandemic had burned itself out before its worldwide impact was generally comprehended. Everyone the virus could get had been gotten, there was no one left to infect.

Tragically, the appalling decisions of New Zealand politicians and military administrators, both at home and in our newly acquired colony of “German Samoa”, allowed the virus to come ashore and do its deadly work. The ship returning William Massey, New Zealand’s prime minister, from Europe had reported the infection on board but was, astonishingly, allowed to dock. No one, seemingly, had the courage to order the PM placed under quarantine. The New Zealand military officer “in charge” of Samoa, was similarly informed that there was sickness aboard an arriving vessel. He, too, permitted its passengers to disembark. The virus swept across western Samoa, killing upwards of a quarter of the territory’s native population.

If you look hard, it is possible to locate the burial sites of the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic’s victims. Row upon row of tiny gravestones, or, verdant swards of cemetery lawn marking mass graves. Very occasionally, there is a larger memorial. The reality, however, is that the horrors of the pandemic were simply rolled-up with all the other bloody horrors of the war. People were encouraged to merge these two, equally dreadful, global experiences into a single tragic narrative which was now – praise be to God! – over. Best not to dwell. Best not to ask too many questions. Best not to learn too many lessons.

And yet, some lessons were learned. In 1920 the Health Organisation of the League of Nations was formed, building upon the rather haphazard pre-war efforts to co-ordinate the international fight against deadly diseases. In 1948, following a second, even more appalling global conflict, the now defunct League’s Health Organisation morphed into the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the newly former United Nations. It is no accident that one of the core principles of the WHO is the early, accurate and comprehensive communication of “outbreak” data across the planet.

Political and military reluctance to rapidly and truthfully acknowledge, and then take steps to combat, outbreaks of highly infectious and deadly disease, as happened at the end of the First World War, is every bit as dangerous to public health as the deadliest virus. Such is the grim tutorial from the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19. It is to be hoped that the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States – and New Zealand – are paying close attention.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 March 2020.


Kat said...

Just as well in Jacinda Ardern we have a PM who is proving very adept at "paying attention". Thank heavens as this virus spreads its tentacles around the globe we in NZ are spared of Key and his inept apprentices being in charge of public health.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

The government of the UK seems to be ignoring most expert advice and relying on gaining herd immunity from having a large number of people infected. I've heard at least two experts say that this is ridiculous, that we should try to minimise the number of people infected and hope for a vaccine, which seems reasonably close. Hopefully the New Zealand government will be trying to do this although you can never be sure given the number of people who quite cheerfully ignore expert scientific opinion about almost anything.

As Isaac Asimov once said, "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nursed by the false notion that democracy means my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

David Stone said...

It doesn't look like it!



greywarbler said...

I couldn't recall the disaster in 1948 you referred to so looked up wikipedia. There are an amazing lot of disasters for every year it seems. There were six for 1948. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:1948_disasters

I don't know why we bother to make zombie movies, and blood splattered fictional fight-films when we have real life to suck up. But I detect amongst young to middle-aged parents a reluctance to dwell on things nasty in real life. It seems to me that our culture is enveloped by colour tv stretching life-size across living rooms, or smaller ones watched in bed. And the children's television is relentlessly happy, simple with little moral messages about being fair to friends and fighting off monsters. The smiling devil that can arise in any of us, doesn't turn his face to show his dark side. I think it's become a 'Don't tell, and we won't ask' world.

Tiger Mountain said...

What a particular society is encouraged to remember, or forget, to investigate, or not look into, is a most useful indicator. As we well know in New Zealand via post colonial fall out, and even the recent ANZAC Gallipoli revelation re long stated but wildly wrong casualty numbers, history is rarely a fully “done deal”.

I was never particularly into the South African Truth and Reconcilliation attempt, not that the likes of NZ ‘81 Tour solidarity marchers views mattered much to that process despite Mr Mandela’s praise. The ANC had the great misfortune to assume power with the assistance of corporates wanting to keep operating, at the height of neo liberalism. I do still admire the Chileans that to this day will not allow their history be “forgotten” as some of the 1973 perpetrators and their descendants so want it to be. Pinochet was pursued all the way to his unmarked burial spot.

It is true that every tinpot NZ settlement and district seems to have an arch, stone, hall or flagpole marking WWI-the reality of the gung-ho myth was that conscription had to be enacted once the first crops of keen volunteers had been “harvested”. The “Flu lesson” surely is to tell populations the truth during pandemics.

David George said...

Yes Greywarbler - there's always a snake in the garden - we can build a wall to keep it out and delude ourselves that we're safe. That delusion only helps make us weaker and more vulnerable to the snake that invariably arises within and within the heart of man.
Here's a lovely explanation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.

David George said...

GS: "UK seems to be ignoring most expert advice and relying on gaining herd immunity"
The comment (re herd immunity) as reported by the BBC was from Sir Patrick Vallance, govt chief scientific adviser. Quote: "the thinking behind current approach to #coronavirus is to try and "reduce the peak" and to build up a "degree of herd immunity so that more people are immune to the disease".
Not sure what's "anti-intellectual" about that - this is the scientifically accepted, and proven response in these situations.
Herd immunity was not part of immediate government policy as you assert, rather a desired long term consequence.
Their policy is much the same as most other countries including ours: Close the borders (as much as possible) to reduce incoming sources, severe restrictions on contact and gatherings and isolation for known or suspected cases.
The disastrous consequences of a sudden spike or peak overwhelming our limited health systems is the immediate concern. These measures are intended to eliminate that possibility.
Hopefully there is an effective vaccine before too long, the Israelis have something very promising already I believe.

David George said...

Here is a good tracker (sourced from WHO and others) showing cases and deaths by country. Things not good in continental Europe. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/17/coronavirus-uk-cases-deaths-map-wales-scotland-ireland-england/

China 81,058 3,230
Italy 31,506 2,503
Iran 16,169 988
Spain 11,409 510
Germany 8,639 23
S Korea 8,320 81
France 6,664 148
USA 5,723 97
UK 1,950 71

greywarbler said...

The Right-wing, we fear, will accept with short lachrymose mien, 'public death' rather than public health.
Ref: Boorish Johnson and his easy-peasy attitude - which covers a multitude of sins.
Mar.16/20 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/16/new-data-new-policy-why-uks-coronavirus-strategy-has-changed

The UK has fewer ICU beds per capita than Italy. Austerity measures have led to a catastrophe waiting to happen.
UK seen boosting funds to fight virus in Johnson's first budget

British MP 'who was in touch with Boris Johnson' has coronavirus

A good coverage: https://www.vox.com/world/2020/3/15/21180414/coronavirus-uk-herd-immunity-vallance-johnson
This puts the facts about the effect of relying on 'herd immunity'.
With 66 million people living in the UK nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that strategy could lead to as many as 40 million people infected. Depending on the mortality rate — which depends on access to medical care and other factors but is estimated to be 1 percent globally — the death rate en route to improved immunity could range from 300,000 to more than a million.

But the USA is feeling bullish or is it bearish as T.ump looks after business and makes caring and concerning and being good voluntary, SNAFU.
I can't bear it!

Nice touch Israel - never let a chance to tighten harshly slip by eh.

I like the Royal family - they put up a good fight against the gutter press and all who read them. So look after these expensive jewels I say. They are going out of London, ahead of other areas in the spread of Covid-19 and off to Windsor I think.
Officials are concerned for the welfare of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, 98, who since retiring spends his time on the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are understood to be taking “appropriate measures” over coronavirus after suggestions that Prince Harry could have been exposed to it during his final UK engagements this month.

Harry hugged Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton as the two opened the Silverstone Experience Centre on 6 March.
Two days before, Hamilton was photographed at the WE Day UK charity events in London alongside the actor Idris Elba and Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister – both of whom have since tested positive for Covid-19.


PS It is interesting how google has arranged its settings so that aljazeera when heading the search, still comes below The Atlantic. And when I set the time to 24 hours, even a week, aljazeera doesn't appear as a leading item.

Ruz said...

This is a good history lesson Chris.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Kiwi Dave. I did say MOST expert advice, I don't know if the government scientific advisor in Britain is himself getting advice from epidemiologists... or maybe not. But he certainly isn't an epidemiologist. Anyway, they seem to have altered their stance a little in response to pressure.
I didn't say it was necessarily anti-intellectual, you're sort of reading that into it, I was more referring to the people who are refusing to stop large gatherings and so on – my bad I should have made it more clear.
I was probably also referring to you getting your information on climate change from a physicist who specialises in optics, and a dead inventor who admitted he knew nothing about the science behind climate change but just doesn't like the arrogance of climate scientists. Sorry about that dig, I'm trying to be a bit more polite as I'm not round here as often.