Notes from the past – a reading of Jaime Breitnauer’s “The Spanish Flu Epidemic and Its Influence on History”

Notes from the past

In the malaise that grips an individual caught in the middle of a pandemic is the foreboding that no one knows anything about it. Even the name of the virus “novel coronavirus” implies that human society has not seen anything like this before (even though that is not the reason why the moniker was applied in the first place). But that’s hardly true, is it? Surely, mankind has faced many such events in the past and has probably emerged stronger for it. And surely, we can learn from such prior events, can we not?  To do that, we need to first find the stories of such events. Perhaps the epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the biblical story of the great flood, perhaps our own histories of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, are but retellings of our history and knowledge of such events. We may yet uncover a historian of the Ice Ages that threatened to wipe out homo sapiens from the face of the earth. Closer to our age, we have the wonderful literature of the middle ages recording the Black Plague – Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petrarch, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Piers Plowman by William Langland are part of the canon. Even in art, Le Danse Macabre reminds us of the democratising leveller – the plague spared no one due to station, wealth, beauty, or age. Perhaps it is a stretch, but could the Reformation have taken place without the remembrance of the great equalizer like the Black Plague? But that is the topic for another set of meandering thoughts….

If you want to move closer to the Age of Science, the events of a scant hundred years ago stand out as a wonderful example of how we encountered another pandemic and recovered from it – the misnamed “Spanish Flu.”  A global pandemic ranging from February 1918 to April 1920, this influenza is estimated to have a death toll of anywhere between seventeen and fifty million, with about a third  of the world’s population having been infected by it – what we today would call “tested positive.” Mostly forgotten in the rest of the twentieth century, first as being a footnote to the First World War, and then being overtaken by what we consider to be the defining events of the twentieth century, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War, etc., the Spanish Flu has had a few chroniclers who have published books over the last decade that seem to be almost prescient in the timing of their publication.

One such book is Jaime Breitnauer’s The Spanish Flu Epidemic and Its Influence on History, published by Pen and Sword History from Yorkshire in 2019. This is a slender volume of 11 chapters chronicling personal stories and tying them up into a narrative that tries to determine the effect of the pandemic on the future. Right from the first chapter onwards, the author makes you aware as to how little do ordinary people know of the past, and how much history repeats itself. You get great nuggets of information – do you know that word virus comes from Latin meaning a “slimy liquid poison?” Or that the origin of the H1N1 term comes from the two proteins found on the surface of the virus – Haemagglutinin (or H), and Neuraminidase (or N)? These proteins can be slightly different, giving us H1N1 (the Spanish flu), H2N2 (the Asian flu of the 1950s), or the H3N2 variant (the Hong flu of the 1960s). You learn of the “antigenic drift,” the way these proteins change in an already established variant of the flu. This antigenic drift makes it difficult for the human body to fight the flu. Our immune system tries to combat the virus by producing protective chemicals called cytokines, followed by antibodies that attach themselves to the virus and destroy it. The human body also keeps in its memory the antibodies needed to fight the virus and can produce them when attacked again, but the antigenic drift seems to make the virus a new strain, and the human body cannot recognize it as the old virus.

The book has a chapter on India, covering three stories, and making the argument that the Spanish flu in India provided the stimulus for Gandhiji to become the leader of the freedom struggle, and how Britain’s colonial policies made it take hard stands against the Indian people and eventually forced the India people to turn its back on British raj. The individual stories include a poet (Nirala), Gandhiji himself (did you know that he had had a mild case of the Spanish flu?), and the unifying efforts of the Indians to treat their own people for the flu.

So what does Ms. Breitnauer say, are the lessons that we learn from the Spanish flu? First, the issues that seem to be ripped from today’s headlines seem to have created the outcomes from the pandemic of a century ago as well – safety versus economy, personal responsibility versus personal freedoms, racism and colonial policies, political agendas, school closures, all find an echo today. One lesson we have to learn from the Spanish flu: the “second wave” was caused by a mutation in the virus, and the movement of people at the end of the war. We have already learnt that COVID-19 has had several mutations. Will the “Unlock” episodes that we are going through be the equivalent of the movement of the people after the war?  If so, our own “second wave” will doom all the efforts at quarantines and social distancing that we have used till now. The other big takeaway is how the Spanish flu led to some important movements – the freedom struggle, the public health initiatives that were launched as a result of the pandemic. What would the equivalents be today? We have much to ponder.

Finally, and I think that this is the main point I want to make. In reading about the “U” and “W” shapes of the deaths from the Spanish flu in the book, I feel that our scientific and medical community are well-versed in the workings of the virus and the effects of it on the populace. But do our administrators and public officials and the laypeople? Unless and until they learn and understand the effects of a pandemic on the global population, we may be in for a similar toll from the COVID-19 virus. We desperately need to get the general public well informed and involved in the management of a pandemic. It is only when that happens that we can overcome the old foes of progress – ignorance, a lack of consideration for the other, and a refusal to deal with the present with a scientific attitude.

Let me sign off with the well known saying from George Santayana that I quote in full as it seems very relevant today.

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when the experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Dr. Ashok Natarajan
Professor, Rajalakshmi School of Business, Chennai
Email –