Thursday, 09 April 2020 16:45

Startling connections: Pandemics then and now

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Friedrich Trump (Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times) Friedrich Trump (Credit: Bryan Thomas for The New York Times)

Just over a hundred years ago, an influenza virus unlike any before swept across the world.

There are startling connections between that pandemic and our current one, not least the following:
- US President Donald Trump's own grandfather died in the 1918 influenza pandemic
- David Lloyd George, the then British Prime Minister, narrowly escaped death. He was 55 at the time, and the same age as Boris Johnson is now. The PM remains in intensive care, fighting a new virus a century later.

In 1918, as the first world war was drawing to a close, a new and indiscriminate enemy swept across the world, felling soldiers and civilians alike.

The 'Spanish influenza' was so named because the first cases were reported there. This wasn't because Spain was the undisputed origin of the infection. During World War 1, newspapers were censored in countries involved in the fighting (Germany, the USA, Britain and France all had media blackouts on news that might lower morale). Spain was neutral during the Great War, and its news correspondents were free to report on the outbreak. One of the first to fall ill was the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII. *

Another early sufferer was the British prime minister, David Lloyd George.

On 11 September 1918, Lloyd George arrived in Manchester to be presented with the keys to the city, amidst euphoria at news of recent Allied victories that pointed towards an imminent end to the war. Female munitions workers and soldiers home on furlough (that word again) turned out to cheer him, but later that evening, he developed a sore throat and fever and collapsed.

The Prime Minister spent the next 10 days confined to a sickbed in Manchester town hall, too ill to move and with a respirator to aid his breathing. Newspapers, including the Manchester Guardian, played down the severity of his condition for fear that the Germans may use it as propaganda. But, according to his valet, it had been “touch and go”.

Lloyd George
David Lloyd George

Lloyd George, then aged 55, and the same age as the current PM Boris Johnson survived, but others were not so lucky. In an era before antibiotics and vaccines, the disease claimed the lives of between 200 and 250 thousand Britons. Cruelly for a nation that had seen its young male population decimated by German guns, the majority were adults aged 20 to 40. The mortality was the inverse of most flu seasons, when deaths fall most heavily on the elderly and the under-fives.

Frederick Trump, the current US President's grandfather succumbed to the disease on 30th May 1918. His battle was brief, ending by most accounts within 48 hours of falling ill. His death came early in the 'curve,' at a time before anyone realised that they were in the midst of a pandemic. New York was already a densely populated city, a centre of shipping and a hub for soldiers departing for and returning from the fighting in Europe. This made the city an ideal environment for the spread of the flu, but many doctors dismissed the early cases, often thinking that they were routine ailments. It was an era when deadly disease was a more common part of life. Frederick Trump’s death was typical of that pandemic, which hit people of all ages as well as people like him, seemingly in their prime, healthy middle years. **

Among other notable historical figures who caught the disease but recovered were the US president Woodrow Wilson and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Groucho Marx caught the flu in New York and Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad. The future Mustafa Kemal Atatürk went down with it in Vienna. Haile Selassie fell ill in Addis Ababa. TS Eliot got the flu in London – he wrote The Waste Land as he recovered. Other victims who recovered included Franklin Roosevelt, Lillian Gish, Franz Kafka, DH Lawrence, Béla Bartók, Walt Disney, Ezra Pound and the aviator Amelia Earhart. In Colorado, Katherine Anne Porter’s black hair fell out as a result of flu. When it grew back her hair was white, and she went on to write a memoir, 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider' about the pandemic.

As for those who died of the disease, they included the painter Egon Schiele and his wife, the Parisian poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and Yakov Sverdlov, one of Lenin’s right-hand men.

Lawrence of Arabia’s father also succumbed, as did Arthur Conan Doyle’s son. A famous British casualty was the diplomat Mark Sykes. In 2008, Sykes’s coffin, lead-lined because of the virulence of the disease, was disinterred from his grave in Yorkshire. The purpose was to enable researchers to take samples from his remains of the H1N1 virus strain that caused the Spanish flu.

Such samples, now under high-security lock and key in Atlanta, have been examined for clues as to why this strain was so potent and how a future pandemic might be contained.

* The naming has caused offence in Spain from that day to this – and has belatedly led to greater care in the naming of subsequent strains and outbreaks that cross borders. For this was a disease that ignored human frontiers. It killed from Alaska to Zanzibar. Unfortunately, such care was not exercised by the US President referring to the current Coronavirus as the 'Chinese Virus'. China experts argue that labelling the virus this way will only increase tensions between the two countries and encourage xenophobia. Asian-Americans have reported incidents of racial slurs and physical abuse over the perception that China caused COVID-19.

** It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with the 1918 influenza virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be between 50 and 100 million worldwide.

Read 1501 times Last modified on Monday, 27 April 2020 17:33
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