Six Damn Fine Degrees #40: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Welcome to some sort of grim hat-trick. This entry might well be a part of our sadly ever-expanding series called Corona Diaries; it is also a revisit of what I once wrote for The Rear-View Mirror about Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider; and the concept of six degrees carries a very cynical note when thinking about contagion, way back in 1918 when the Spanish Flu hit, and again today, for glaringly obvious reasons.

Spinney’s book (full title: Pale Rider. The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World) is either the worst book to read theses days while we are nervously waiting for the fourth wave to break and recede (a state of affairs that I tenderly call the Delta Blues), or it is the very best book to get a sense of what people everywhere went through in 1918 when the only thing worse to see loved ones go off to war and die was to see loved ones get sick and die. Maybe it’s both.

The connection of the Spanish Flu to World War I is tangled and unclear. Conservative estimates state that more soldiers died in action than people died from the flu, but other scientific calculations put it the other way around: the Spanish Flu might well be the worst epidemic of the last century. It is hard to tell because almost all of the medical evidence has disappeared, and China and Russia were very reluctant to release any kind of information about anything, be it war casualties or victims of a deadly strain of infectious disease. What is more, a hundred years ago, the medical avant-garde was of the unprovable opinion that flu was transmitted by bacteria, while the general populace pointed its ignorant fingers at bad air, shameful family inheritance, foreigners, or God’s wrath. What also muddied the waters were almost unprecedented human displacements in the form of troop movements in overcrowded wagons or narrow ship cabins so that any kind of transmittable disease got to see the world, of which there were several examples, some of them with similar symptoms: TB, bacterial pneumonia, the last weak strains of Russian flu that peaked in the 1890s. Diagnosis was hard, if not impossible. And there was neither the inclination nor the manpower to inquire of what exactly the soldiers died of when they fell ill in the catastrophic sanitary conditions down in the trenches.

So the Spanish Flu hid in plain sight. Spinney, who lived and worked here in Switzerland for some time, tackles the story of the flu not chronologically, but circles around it, picks up several themes and writes about them in great depth; she goes back in time several times to tell us how, if at all, some governments implemented preventive healthcare advice, imposed lockdowns and quarantines, and put up improvised hospitals and morgues. The book was published in 2017 and is now everywhere in bookstores, along with its German translation. Spinney, a science journalist who has written numerous articles for the Guardian about Covid-19, mentions at one point that another epidemic is a given, and it’s impossible not to feel a chill creeping up your spine when you read such a sentence. On the one hand, her writing is very readable, wholly accessible to readers like me without any background in medicine, and on the other hand, you frequently want to put down the book and think how we are making some of the same mistakes today that others made a hundred years ago: some of us feel the urge to help others by going to see to their address and look if they are doing okay, thereby putting them, and us, at risk of infection; some of us are suspicious of vaccines because we would like to know its long-term effects, thereby wasting precious time; some of us even think that it cannot be that bad, since a flu is a flu. In 1918, there was no vaccine; you either didn’t have it or had to endure it in all its consequences. Humanity should evolve faster than a virus, but apparently, that is too much to ask from us.

And once you’ve read the book, here is a 41-minute YouTube video interview with Laura Spinney talking about Corona, dated May 2021. You may not have the inclination to let the virus into your head more than it is already there, but Spinney’s voice is one of the most level-headed around. Read and listen if you can.

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