The Great Influenza
I absolutely loved this book and found it extremely informative and useful. If you have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, have opinions about how it should be handled, and want to be well informed, this book is an extremely valuable use of your time.
About the book
The 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide, it came as a surprise to political leaders, people underestimated it well into its destruction, it killed young people and old people in gruesome fashion, this was nasty stuff
Generally whenever there is a “culture war of the week” or a news cycle that gets people riled up I try to run off and read a few books about the topic right away. Everyone has an opinion about everything and they all seem to be extremely confident their opinion is factually and universally correct, ironically I find confidence to be more closely associated with stupidity than wisdom. So on political issues I prefer to read old books that detail historical precedent and ignore internet propagandists. Admittedly, I did not do this effectively in regards to Covid-19. When the pandemic first hit I read “World War Z” which is a fictional book about how governments and society would react to a zombie apocalypse, a fun book with some interesting similarities but ultimately not very useful. At the time of this writing in September 2021 I have just completed “The Great Influenza” and I really wish I had read it much closer to the start of this pandemic.
Why do I trust and respect this account when there is so much information available is shallow opinion, propaganda, misinformation, and bullshit? For starters this book was written in 2007, far before our current situation, this means no one wrote this text as tool to feed a narrative that can benefit them, it’s also a historical account of the 1918 Spanish Flu which means any and everyone who might benefit from being shown in good light or from selling a position that benefits them is long dead. There is no one who can benefit from the sale or information in this book, other than those who want to learn from the history of past pandemics….which I do.
My initial position
I made a Facebook post in early 2020 saying I wasn’t worried about Covid-19 and that the risk was similar to the flu, in retrospect this was fairly ignorant of me. Reflecting on what has happened in the last 18 months the Covid-19 risk was certainly not as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu, but definitely far worse than our average yearly flu, so I was really wrong on this point. I still personally think people are a bit over-scared about this issue, but I tend to avoid fear as a decision making trait in general, however the damage from Covid-19 could have easily been far worse and we would have been just as unprepared, and attitudes like mine would have caused much undue self-harm. Overall many attitudes like mine did cause self-harm. Covid-19 turned out to be a fairly manageable risk from a large scale perspective and not nearly as bad as Spanish flu but this was only known after the fact, if it had a higher potency, we would have screwed ourselves. As I learn more about the topic and see the potential damage of these pandemics I now believe that we have been quite lucky, even with that, we made this way worse than it had to be and for almost no reason other than stubbornness, pride, and arrogance - and none of these are ways I want to describe myself.
The main things I learned from this book
Biggest lesson: The similarities in how these viruses behave and how people behave to them is eerily similar. The media downplayed the risk of the 1918 Spanish flu in an attempt to keep cultural morale high during World War 1. People also downplayed the risk because they personally didn’t believe in it. People wouldn’t isolate at first, once the dead bodies started piling they got scared shitless and became hermits, people didn’t want to wear masks, and all the same stuff we are doing today. The reaction from the mass population as far as I can tell is nearly identical. To me this means that for all the “My freedoms” activist confidence on the right or the “if you go in public you’ll kill someone” on the left aren’t coming from positions of wisdom based on thorough risk assessment,, they are just spouting off what they were going to spout off no matter what. This is incredibly notable to me because it shows that the polarizing reactions have never really been about research or public responsibility, it was just base instinctual human behaviour. A large portion of this book is this history of medical science that led up to virus research and it seems that the scientific community then was saying the same thing the scientific community is saying today: isolate, quarantine, wear masks. People didn’t listen then and we didn’t listen today (myself included), and it costs human lives for no gain.
My 2nd biggest lesson The 1918 Influenza pandemic went away mostly on it’s own. This surprised me tremendously as I thought they eventually developed a vaccine to inoculate against it, when in reality it had 3 waves of regressing potency and went away. Isolation/quarantine was by far the best defence when it was used effectively and severely, but not much else seemed to help. The areas of the planet who had no virus in their communities and flat out refused to let any outsiders in, survived with zero issues, all other communities were ripped apart with tragedy.
These mutations are volatile and unpredictable. Both influenza and Coronavirus are both RNA based viruses, from what I understood from the book this means they can potentially mutate fast and in great volumes. The risk of spreading more dangerous mutations of these viruses is not only ongoing but increasing as we travel more frequently. Meaning, this will not be the last pandemic we have to deal with, this is something we can get better prepared for. For me, that means knowledge and understanding as much as I can about the risk. Confidence that I know what’s best is a rookie mistake.
What the future holds
As much as I hate isolation and masks, it seems that they do work, especially the isolation, regardless of their efficacy, large swaths of people won’t ever agree to them. From the start of Covid-19 many people claimed quarantine was about government control (something I never really understood to be honest), then I found out that in 1918 states enacted all sorts of laws to get a grip of the situation including making it illegal to cough in public without covering your face. The people were subject to the sedition act which made it illegal to speak out against the government as well, though this was mostly about keeping moral high for the war, I ultimately realized that government intervention in this area is far from something new, but also it’s really important to note that the government did reduce these exercises of power when the world went back to normal. The Covid-19 pandemic was not a ploy to take power from citizens, citizens just wanted to selfishly and stubbornly avoid making any changes to their lifestyle and used the government as a scapegoat.
After reading this book I hold a much higher respect for the threats that mother nature can deploy.
I have to admit, the graphic descriptions of the 1918 virus have scared me straight, hearing people in their healthy 20’s dying in a brutal and tragic fashion in as soon as 24 hours after contracting this influenza has had a sobering effect on me. If avoiding that risk means isolation or wearing a mask, then I will easily take that inconvenience. During the next pandemic I believe I will quarantine much faster to reduce early spread of a virus and to patiently assess the real world risk. Is quarantine annoying and terrible for my mental health? Yep! Are masks uncomfortable and unfashionable? Yep! Did it turn out that Covid-19 was fairly low risk to people under 65 so I personally was exposed to very little risk? Yep! But if I had behaved the way I did in 1918 there was an extremely high chance I would be dead. It’s better to be paranoid and survive than to be proud and dead. As Nassim Taleb says “never take on risk of ruin”.
I found this book to be apolitical, informative, and useful. I highly recommend it.