Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fear itself

When the virus entered the body it was transformed into something almost invariably fatal.  The drama of the sickness was reflected in an explosion of color.  First the skin turned a vivid and almost beautiful purple, reminiscent of the heliotrope flower or of polished amethyst.  Then the lungs and all the other major organs became filled with a thick scarlet jelly that choked the afflicted.  Death occurred as the victims drowned in their own blood and bodily fluids.  Even if a sufferer recovered, the illness could leave behind a lingering sense of misery and hopelessness.*

The author is describing the great flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed between forty and fifty million people all over the world, including four percent of the population of India.  Fit young men in army camps went on sick call in the morning and were dead by night.  Troops in transit carried the infection to every part of the planet.  Doctors and nurses were in short supply because of the war, especially in Europe, and in any case no anti-viral drugs yet existed.  Taking their cue from public health authorities and the press, people tried to fight the disease with quinine, alcoholic beverages, opium, rhubarb, beef tea and hot baths.  Gauze face masks were thought to provide protection, and the state of Arizona may have saved lives by forbidding people to shake hands.

In one way, the people of a century ago were more fortunate than we.  Press censorship during wartime protected them from the conspiracy theories of crackpots and demagogues.  At the dawn of modern medicine, there was no expectation that absolutely everything could be cured at once, and if it couldn't, somebody must be to blame.  Even the death of the very young was part of life, and the survivors carried on as best they could.  The war which had killed millions was the fault of the politicians.  The disease was not.

Plagues come and go, we know from history.  The so-called "Spanish Flu" disappeared as mysteriously as it came, and most people chose to forget it.  Even in western Africa, Ebola is unlikely to be nearly as devastating.  With prompt and competent care, people recover.  Don't panic.

*Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence:  Britain From the Shadow of the First World War To the Dawn of the Jazz Age, New York, Grove Press, 2009