Pale Rider | Laura Spinney

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany abdicated on 9 November 1918 and in the streets of Paris there was jubilation.

One of the reasons I decided to pick up Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World at this point in history, was for the history.

We are now 18 months into the latest pandemic. Our particular virus is officially described as ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)’. The disease is called coronavirus disease or Covid-19 as we mostly shorten it to these days (CO – corona, VI – virus, D – disease, 19 – 2019).

As another wave moves through Australia during our 2021 winter months, with the Delta variant the predominant strain, causing lockdowns in states and cities across the country, the tone has changed too.

The messaging coming from our politicians has changed. Fear tactics have become a big part of the daily press conferences, stating numbers, hospitalisations, those in ICU and the ages of those sick. The narky, anti-everything comments on social media have ramped up to a point where they are now even seeping into my heavily curated feeds.

Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-stay-at-home rhetoric is on the rise. States and cities are pitted against each other. Neighbours are being encouraged to dob in neighbours. Conspiracy theories abound as health officials are ridiculed or overridden by politicians and the media.

As an observer of human nature and a lover of history, I have been wondering just how typical this kind of behaviour is compared to previous plagues and pandemics. I suspect we are not that different. And that we, as a collective, have not learnt anything at all from history.

We like to think we are living in more modern times, better educated and better able to deal with modern illness. But nothing I have seen in the past 18 months makes me think that we have learnt anything at all from history. Sure our science is more modern and can isolate and name and work on cures or medicines much faster and more efficiently than of old, but the fears, prejudices and human foibles are exactly the same.

Bring on Laura Spinney and her book from three years ago about the Spanish Flu that ravaged the world at the end of WWI. Her book promised to be more than just a well-researched list of facts and figures. The blurb promised anecdotes, a narrative non-fiction told through letters, memoirs and media reports.

I was looking for the stories, the similarities, the common ways that we, with Covid-19, were acting and reacting and behaving compared to our grandparents and great-grandparents. Can we ever learn from history, or are we always doomed, by our human nature, to always repeat the past?

In the Introduction: The Elephant in the Room Spinney provides a basic rundown of the timeline of the Spanish Flu as it moved around the globe. But from there on she goes on to show us how it was a ‘social phenomenon as much as it is a biological one.’

We see that our desire to come together to form communities and cities was also the start of social diseases or ‘crowd diseases’. That this community living created opportunities for close contact between humans and the animals we kept to feed ourselves, in particular water birds (ducks) and pigs, which made it easy for viruses to jump or ‘ooze‘ between species.

Until the twentieth century, the idea of germs was unknown, yet germ theory had ‘profound implications for notions of personal responsibility‘. Illness was no longer an unknown, uncontrollable thing that came at you from out of nowhere. Basic personal health and hygiene protocols could actually prevent some illnesses from taking hold. Although many people did not believe this to be true, preferring to take some foul concoction devised with who-knows-what by the quack round the corner, than clean their house, wash their hands or stop spitting on the street. The even newer science of vaccines was treated just as dubiously, by many, as the idea of germ theory.

One of the things that has changed in the past one hundred years, though, is our attitude to death and serious illness. Once upon a time,

it engendered panic, followed by resignation. Religion was the main source of comfort, and parents were used to surviving at least some of their children. People regarded death very differently. It was a regular visitor; they were less afraid.

An early chapter, Like a Thief in the Night, highlighted Brazil’s specific example thanks to the memoirs of writer and physician, Pedro Nava. He clearly described how hard it can be to separate a countries politics at the time with how they react to new science. The Rio de Janeiro Vaccine Revolt of 1904 was not just a reaction to loss of freedoms, but reflected the broader class struggle at play. One magazine writing a decade later said that ‘authorities would exaggerate the danger posed by this mere ‘limpa-velhos’ – killer of old people – to justify imposing a ‘scientific dictatorship’ and violating people’s civil rights.’ It wasn’t easy to convince the populace that science was not just another government tool.

The chronic nature of Spanish Flu was also discussed. Those who survived, were often left with post-viral depression and fatigue, although researchers have had difficulty in separating out post-war depression and fatigue from the effects of the Flu.

Trust turned out to be one of the biggest factors in how well countries fared during the Spanish Flu. Countries that had a reasonable level of trust in their governments, fared better, provided they were given honest messages about the flu, it’s effects and why certain measures were needed.

But if disease containment works best when people choose to freely comply, then people must be informed about the nature of the disease and risk it poses…

…the media clearly have a critical role to play in any future pandemic, and 1918 taught us a valuable lesson in this too: censorship and playing down the danger don’t work; relaying accurate information in an objective and timely fashion does. Information and engagement are not the same thing, however. Even when people have the information they need to contain the disease, they do not necessarily act on it.

Why is the tragic story of the Spanish Flu barely told now? One reason, according to Spinney, is that it was told, but it was told by ‘those who got off most lightly: the white and well off.‘ There was also no hero. With wars and other major world events, their are usually goodies and baddies to hang a story on. There are heroes and someone to blame and a story id told. With a random flu, that comes out of nowhere then disappears again a couple of years later, there is usually no-one to blame and no clear hero to save the day. It’s harder to turn that into a story.

The scientific language used to describe what had happened, usually evolved over time. This time, that is different. We are now inundated with names, strains and medical terms. We are constantly learning. Thanks to the inter-web, the new language is everywhere, almost at once. This, sadly, also applies to conspiracy theories.

One thing we did learn fairly quickly this time, though, was to name the emerging variants carefully with scientific names, rather than with place names. For one of the first things Spinney clears up in her book, is that the Spanish Flu did not, in fact, start in Spain.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Spinney’s book, which may seem like an odd adjective to use, but I love learning new stuff and thinking about how it applies in different situations. I had been going through a covid-lockdown-lethargy phase and this book helped me to come out the other side.

She included an extensive notes section and index, which I appreciated. Although one writerly device that Spinney overused was the ‘but more of this in the next chapter’, which bugged me. I either forgot what the connection was, or in one case in particular, I failed to find the ‘more later’ part at all.

Highly recommended as an easy-to-read, very accessible global history and medical science lesson.

  • Book 15 of 20 Books of Summer Winter

My Previous Plague/Pandemic Reads:

My Upcoming Plague Reads:

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century | Barbara Tuchman (non-fiction The Black Death)
  • Pale Horse, Pale Rider | Katherine Anne Porter (Spanish Flu)
  • The Decameron Project: 29 Stories from the Pandemic | The New York Times (Covid-19)
  • Birdsong in a Time of Silence | Steven Lovatt (Covid-19)
Title: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Author: Laura Spinney
ISBN: 9781784702403
Imprint: Vintage

Published: 18 June 2018
Format: Paperback
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

10 thoughts on “Pale Rider | Laura Spinney

  1. Very interesting. I agree that although we think to believe we have made a lot of change in a hundred years, some essential truths remain intact. The stories in The Decameron Project were a great mix; I quite enjoyed the collection (it’ll be part of my next Quarterly Stories post)!

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  2. I read somewhere that the Spanish Flu actually originated in Kansas.
    But, as you say, I don’t recall it being part of my education or reading. We just went straight from WWI to the Depression.
    I was meant to study the history of disease treatment at uni, but I didn’t pay much attention. I think though vaccination dates back at least to the 1700s with coxpox used to vaccinate against smallpox (which doesn’t seem to have stopped the First and Second Fleets giving it to Aborigines).

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    1. Yes, Bill, top of the class! It is most likely that the SF started in the army training camps in Kansas. It then arrived at the Front as the US shipped troops across to join the fighting.

      And the smallpox/cowpox link was made in the 1700’s, but it was like 1798 or something like that and a worldwide eradication process didn’t come into effect until after WWII (although I believe that Europe and US were free of the disease by that point). The early vaccination process (earlier in the 1700’s) involved a lancet covered in fresh pus from an infected person being introduced under the skin of a healthy person. By the time the guy discovered the cowpox link, inoculation with a needle was possible, making it safer, easier and faster to administer.

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    1. Curiously I feel better after tackling one of these #plaguelit titles. I’m finding comfort from the example of all those generations of people throughout history, who have survived challenging times before us. I like being reminded that we are not unique or special or being singled out. It has happened before & will happen again. And we will continue on. I find that thought comforting 🤷🏼‍♀️

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