At the end of the first World War, as civilians and soldiers returning home were celebrating the end of a senseless and cruel carnage, another terror was lurking in the microscopic shadows. The 1918 flu pandemic, most commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu, would end up taking the lives of anywhere from 50 to 100 million people around the world. The first wave of the virus was bad enough, but the second wave mutated in a way that was far more lethal and rapidly swept through communities in every country, causing untold misery and bringing governments and economies to their knees.
Although the 1918 pandemic was named the Spanish Flu, it is unlikely the virus actually originated there. In fact, many historians believe it originated in the United States, and that an American soldier might have inadvertently brought it with him to Europe during combat assignments. But the deadly catastrophe was reported by the Spanish press in a thoroughly honest manner as opposed to other nations. Spain, which was neutral in WW1, had no propaganda to advance. But within the imperialistic nations at war, obfuscation and lies ruled the day in the media. Propaganda was considered more important than giving an appearance of weakness to the enemy. This blackout may have led to the initial and rapid spread of the pathogen. But another factor of this pandemic was how officials handled warnings from healthcare professionals after the war, and how humans’ relationship with animal species may have given the virus its start in the first place. With the world reeling from the latest pandemic, Covid-19, it is worth revisiting the lessons of this tragic era.
The 1918 pandemic was not the plague that ravaged Europe centuries earlier, but it emerged in an era of modern warfare which most certainly aided in its incubation and distribution. Tens of thousands of men were housed in huge barracks, in very close quarters. The spread of disease was almost a given. Indeed, without any properties of intelligence, this virus used militarism as one of its vehicles for its deadly global rampage. The first World War was vicious. It claimed millions of lives, of soldiers and civilians alike. Chemical warfare was one of the most cruel manifestations of modern weapons. Apart from the horrific effects of agents like mustard gas, the psychological toll was enormous. Throughout history, war and militarism have been linked to disease, and it isn’t too difficult to understand why. Contrary to what is commonly held as true, war is alien to humanity, and even more so in the last 100 + years. It not only rips at the fragile chords that link humanity together, but tears apart the very fabric of the natural world on which we all depend.
Following this horrendous war, public health officials and politicians continued to downplay the severity of the rapidly spreading disease. Many wanted to puff up their reputations with parades and festivities. One particularly tragic example of this was in September of 1918 in the city of Philadelphia. 200,000 people crowded together on clogged city streets despite a looming disaster in the making. In just three days the cities hospitals were inundated with gravely ill patients. The healthcare system would collapse within a week. By the end of it at least 12,000 people in Philadelphia had perished, but this account is likely underestimated as the city simply stopped counting the dead and mass graves had to be dug to bury mountains of corpses. Children starved after their parents succumbed. Bodies lay unmoved in houses due to the fear by city workers of contagion. Doctors and nurses would drop to the floor gasping for air while caring for the dying. Sadly, we have seen similar stories being repeated recently in China and Italy. It is a textbook example of how social distancing is key to the slowing of deadly contagions.
But the 1918 pandemic also revealed how understanding human interaction with animals is key to assessing how viruses flourish and become more lethal. This was, as in the case of all coronaviruses, a zoonotic disease. Meaning, it has its origin in other species and jumped the barrier to humans due to proximity and, in all likelihood, unsanitary and cruel conditions that livestock endured. And soldiers who were malnourished thanks to limited rations and who faced the utter barbarity of war, provided the 1918 flu virus a perfect host. Today’s modern globalized world has created new avenues for the distribution of pathogens. But it is in our relationship to other species that this latest pandemic was likely born.
It would be all too easy to simply blame one market in the bustling city of Wuhan for the current unfolding catastrophe. But it would ignore the glaring and stark reality that humanity has breached crucial planetary boundaries that have altered the very net of the biosphere. With little doubt, global industrialization fueled by the avarice of capital gain has made pillage of a liveable biosphere inevitable. Deforestation, mining, mass scale fishing and other deeply damaging practices have all but erased the frontier between humans and other species. Indeed, the habitat of other species has dramatically shrunk in the last century thanks to the rapid expansion of industrialized extraction of what have become known as “resources” and any damage done referred to as “externalities.” But it has done so at an extraordinary and existential price. A myriad of species have been decimated by the rapacious activities of capital accumulation for the economic powers who seek unending profit above planetary health. But, as Covid-19 is demonstrating, it is nature that has the ultimate power to shut this machine down.
Even in its infancy, the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped the tattered and rotting cloak from the edifice of the global economic and political system. Markets are in free fall. Airports and streets are empty. Restaurants and movie theaters are shuttered. Workers have been laid off. In the US people are anxiously staying at home, fearful of any cough or headache because they are un or under-insured; and stupefied by the crumbling institutions which were supposed to protect them. It has revealed the sociopathology of world leaders like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Benjamin Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro who are utterly incapable of addressing the urgency of this situation with even a modicum of decency or compassion; and whose solutions lie solely in increased authoritarianism or even fascism. It has demonstrated the complicity of “moderate” politicians like Emanuel Macron whose neoliberal austerity led to a dearth of medical staff and equipment, and Joe Biden who has long cozied up to Big Business and refused to consider the slightest hint of Medicare for All which might have stemmed the spread of this disease. It has shown us that the militarism of an empire is ruthless and relentless, even in a time of humanitarian disaster, as demonstrated by the ongoing sanctions against Iran and other nations. And it has revealed to us the cruelty that is routinely inflicted on animals and wildlife around the world.
But there are signs that Covid-19 is changing the way humanity looks at the way society is arranged. Some are questioning the cruelty and cost of militarism. Others are seeing how class has kept too many people in a cycle of demeaning poverty and disease, and many are demanding universal healthcare. The 1918 pandemic and a needless war of imperialism stole from humanity a young generation. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be stealing from us our elders, and many of us are beginning to see the intrinsic worth of all people and the immediate need for an end to all war. And, as the waters clear in Venice’s canals and skies become cleaner over Wuhan, there are questions emerging about how our species has treated the delicate balance between us and the natural world. Indeed, many are realizing that there is no “us and the natural world” at all. Covid-19 might be the biosphere’s last and desperate warning to our species that the status quo is a one way ticket to extinction. The only question that remains is how we will respond to its urgent message.
Kenn Orphan 2020
Along with an odious spike in racism I have seen, it has been equally disheartening to see some unhinged conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic circulating on social media. And especially among some whom I thought were above that sort of thing. I have even seen a couple people whom I thought were intelligent sharing stuff from a discredited “journalist” who worked for Alex Jones’ InfoWars. So I wanted to take this opportunity to say that I will not entertain or argue these things any more.
Like human caused climate change, this outbreak is not a hoax. Real people are getting sick. Real people are suffering. And real healthcare workers are on the front line assisting these people while they are exhausted and have dwindling resources to work with. As a medical social worker myself I know of the great sacrifice of these people. Nurses, doctors, aids and all staff involved in care are putting their own health at risk. And it is often a thankless job.
Are governments and politicians reacting well to this crisis? No. Most aren’t. But if you think the powerful planned all this in some lab then you don’t understand how the world works. They are not omnipotent. But most are incompetent or are crooks or authoritarians who will use any crisis to profit themselves or to gain more power. But by all accounts, this pandemic is not working all that well in their favour, is it? Look at the stock market as an indication of this. Is the corporate media doing a good job? No. But when have they ever? Are there are those who will use this to their advantage? Surprise! That has always been the case. And is this whole thing a major inconvenience and terrible economic blow to hard working people? Of course it is.
None of that takes away from the fact that, by all accounts, COVID-19 appears to be a very different and very dangerous pathogen. And it is not the same as yearly outbreaks of influenza. It is far more serious because we understand what influenza is, we are only beginning to grasp what this thing is. And there are many who work in healthcare that understand how it can spread rapidly within populations, especially vulnerable ones, if precautions are not put in place. These people aren’t trying to make you panic when they give accounts of what they are seeing in hospitals or nursing homes. And they aren’t trying to rob you of your freedoms either when they warn of how contagious something like this is. They are trying to save your life, even the lives of those who disparage them.
We all do what we need to do when confronted with issues that seem far bigger than ourselves. We make jokes, encourage each other, provide assistance to vulnerable people, or choose to work in cooperation with others. But many get mired down by paranoia of everything they read or see thanks to the scaremongering and poor communication of the mainstream media. Others hoard things like toilet paper or distrust people who are different from themselves, either on the other side of the world or in their own communities. Still others get lost in an echo chamber of their own making. Personally, I wish to connect with those in the first camp rather than the others. Those who see a crisis like this as an opportunity to be compassionate, confront injustice, and work in solidarity.
Do conspiracies exist? Of course. It is a crime in every law book on the planet. After all, a conspiracy is only “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.” People are behind bars at this very moment for being convicted of conspiracy. Do powerful people collude with each other to commit crimes or things that are harmful to people or even our biosphere? Yes. Should they be held accountable? Of course. But not every crime or awful thing that happens is some kind of conspiracy. And I have found that when people go down a rabbit hole of conjecture, it will lead where it always has led. Straight to no where.
I hope this thing gets resolved quickly. I hope no one I love gets it, especially those who are fragile. And perhaps it will fizzle out and the world’s attention will move to another topic. I hope so, because maybe then we can address truly existential crises like climate change and our besieged and imperiled biosphere, or confront rising fascism, social hatred and economic injustice, or fight colonialism and rampant militarism.
But no. I will not give anyone’s “theories” about the current pandemic credence above the firsthand experience of healthcare workers. And if you do, kindly keep it off my page.
Kenn Orphan March 2020
Photo is Alessia Bonari, a nurse in Northern Italy who took this photo to show the marks on her face caused by protective gear she has to wear for her 6 hour shift.
“I’m afraid to go to work. I’m afraid because the mask may not adhere to my face, or I may have accidentally touched myself with dirty gloves. I am physically tired because the protective devices are bad, the lab coat makes me sweat and once dressed I can no longer go to the bathroom or drink for six hours. I am psychologically tired, as are my colleagues, who have been in the same condition for weeks.
But this won’t prevent us from doing our job as we’ve always done. I will continue to take care of my patients because I am proud and I love my job. What I ask anyone who is reading this post is not to frustrate the efforts we are making, to be selfless, to stay at home and thus protect those who are most fragile.
We young people are not immune to coronavirus, we too can get sick … I can’t afford the luxury of going back to my quarantined house, I have to go to work and do my part. You do yours, I ask you please.”