Review: The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History, by Jaime Breitnauer

ISBN: 9781526745170
Published: 20th November 2019
Price: £15.99

On the second Monday of March 1918, the world changed forever. What seemed like a harmless cold morphed into a global pandemic that would wipe out as many as a hundred-million people – ten times as many as the Great War. German troops faltered lending the allies the winning advantage, India turned its sights to independence while South Africa turned to God. In Western Samoa a quarter of the population died; in some parts of Alaska, whole villages were wiped out. Civil unrest sparked by influenza shaped nations and heralded a new era of public health where people were no longer blamed for contracting disease. Using real case histories, we take a journey through the world in 1918, and look at the impact of Spanish flu on populations from America, to France, to the Arctic, and the scientific legacy this deadly virus has left behind.

My Review

Thanks to Rosie at Pen & Sword for sending me this book. It’s much appreciated, given how much time it’s taking me to read and and review books she’s been sending me.

Took me less than four hours to read this book last night. I couldn’t sleep anyway. No, really, I’m coughing a bit. It’s probably just a cold or an allergy. Might change my bedding later and vacuum the carpet, just in case. I’ll let you know if it’s something worse.

Like the Spanish Flu.

Although I’d probably be dead by now if I had Spanish Flu. In the second wave it was so virulent that it killed people as they walked down the street to the doctors to get help. Whole families died. Thousands of children were left orphaned. Up to 100 million people died in less than two years. At the time it was a shocking event, but in the years that followed it was forgotten. The author speculates that the horrors of war, mass movement of people, malnutrition and then the pandemic was too much for people to cope with. They prefered to think that people died in combat not coughing up their own lungs and choking to death.

Colonialism helped spread the pandemic. Troops from the colonies were sent to the Western Front and then sent back. European troops had been sent to the Middle East, Chinese citizens were sent through Canada and across the Atlantic as part of the Chinese Labour Corp. Millions of people from all over the planet moving around, meeting up in closely packed, unhealthy conditions, malnourished and carrying seasonal infections, then going back out into the world.

People generally know about the effects of the Spanish Flu in Europe and North America, but the pandemic covered the whole globe. People who were of European decent were less likely to die compared to indigenous people in Africa, the Americas, Australia and the Pacific Islands. European and North America people of European descent are used to getting colds and flu, so they had some immunity. Indigenous people didn’t.

Viruses do this interesting thing where they can share their genetic material with each other if they meet in a cell. At some point in the years between 1916 and 1918 some nasty H1N1 flu strains met up, shared genetic material and produced the nastiest virus humans have ever dealt with. Reconstruction of the virus from Alaskan bodies buried in the permafrost in 1920 shows that any one of the eight segments would produce a nasty virus; together they made it leathal.

The arrival of the flu in 1918 helped end the Great War, because it’s really hard to keep up violence when your soldiers are dying from disease and your support lines are falling apart because everyone who should be moving supplies is dead, dying or sick. There were mass famines as the fields weren’t harvested or planted in 1919. In industrial areas, factories and mines shut down because too many people were ill.

It encouraged new and already existing independence movements in colonies in response to the poor treatment of indigenous people during the pandemic, and probably screwed up the post-war negotiations, since it killed or sickened many of the people at the table. The loss of moderate political voices lead to greater punitive measures against Germany, the loss of expertise about the Middle East resulted in the utter mess we still have today.

People are still not sure where it started. There were outbreaks of flu in 1916, 1917 and 1918 in China, the US and France before the first wave of the Spanish Flu. I have a hypothesis that there were some nasty strains going around, and the mass movement of people from across the world, carrying these different strains, as the ‘first wave’ and finally brought together in France, allowed the nastiest of them to meet up, shuffle around some genetics and then produce the virus we call Spanish Flu. I think this is the ‘second wave’, which was the truly awful one. The one that killed millions. The ‘third wave’, less virulent was possibly a version that had drifted a bit or one or the less nasty. Might be wrong, someone else has probably looked at it and ruled this idea out.

Honestly, this is a really good introduction to the Spanish Flu pandemic and its ongoing influence. I could tell the author has a history background and a journalism background too. She made the book very easy to read and the use of real people examples really brought the events of those years to life.

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