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.
Given the current global situation with the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve been hearing a lot of comparisons between it and the Spanish Flu of 1918. Now, I knew that the Spanish Flu had decimated countries but other than that, I didn’t know all that much about it. When I found this book on sale in the kindle store, I thought I would pick it up and give it a read, to satisfy the curious itch that I’ve been having about this short, but deadly period in world history.
This book, written by Jaime Breitnauer, focuses on individual stories of those from across the world who were affected by the Spanish Flu. These are the stories of people from all levels of society – soldiers from the front lines of war torn France, children who lost their parents due to the illness, parents who knew that they would lose everything once they had the virus and ended up resorting to desperate message….the list goes on. It becomes very clear, very quickly, when reading this book that it didn’t matter whether you were pauper or royalty – the virus could and would strike. It affected everyone. Many of the stories are particularly heartbreaking – a father who became unwell knew that he was the only one able to work and provide for his family, so he kept on working until he was so bad that he was sent home. He knew that he had the Spanish Flu, and as he dragged himself home he decided that there was only one way out. His aim was to kill both of his daughters and then himself – whilst he managed to kill one of the girls, the other escaped. He then turned the knife he had used on his daughter upon himself. These were the actions of a very desperate man, who would rather kill himself and his family than have them suffer and starve because he caught the Spanish Flu and lost his job. When I read that little story I paused for a second and felt tears in my eyes – I couldn’t even begin to contemplate what was going through this man’s mind at the time.
We also see the impacts of the Spanish Flu on future generations. We see how Hitler’s rise to power could well have been accentuated by how the flu had affected the German population. We see how the author of A Clockwork Orange, as a child, lost his mother to the flu, and how the experience of being in the same room as her dead body for days influenced his later writing. We also see how public health procedures were stepped up in an effort to stop such a pandemic from ever happening again, up to the creation of the WHO and beyond. Of course throughout the work we also see the mistakes that were made both during the pandemic and after – in particular, the failure of certain governments to act quickly enough to halt the spread of the disease. This is something that many countries around the world are currently experiencing.
Whilst this book doesn’t aim to zero in on just where the Spanish Flu originated from, it certainly does give a short and concise overview of this huge event in history. It is exceptionally well written to the point I would call it a page turner – it gives the facts without sounding overly academic or pretentious – and let me tell you, it’s made me want to learn more about the Spanish Flu pandemic. More – I’m not sure I would say it’s negative – it has made me think a lot more about our current predicament, the mistakes that have been made and continue to be made. The second wave of the Spanish Flu was far more virulent and it honestly has me wondering whether we will end up experiencing the same with the current Covid-19 crisis.
A great read and highly recommended.