A Pandemic by Any Other Name

I feel like I am on one of my travels, in new terrain. But not on the surface, where everything looks and feels normal, more like being sent to some other time period in history. We hunker down like there’s a war, but with no bombs or missiles overhead. No clouds of gas or smoke. No screaming or wailing sirens. It is a strange place, a little reminiscent of the landscape my grandparents and great-grandparents reported having travelled through a hundred years ago, during the 1918-1919 pandemic, the so-called Spanish flu, even though it had nothing to do with Spain.

Poor maligned Spain. We should really be calling it the “Kansas flu” as current research indicates that was the most likely starting point. But with the end of the first World War effecting huge droves of people moving home across the world, the influenza quickly spread. Spain was neutral during WW1 and so was the only country that reported the outbreak, as other countries censored such bad news. There’s a war on, loose lips, fearmongering, stiff upper lips, boost the morale and all that. The Spanish media called it the ‘Naples Soldier’, after a popular song of the time, as catchy as the virus. In Senegal it was named ‘the Brazilian flu’, and in Brazil ‘the German flu’, while in Poland it was known as ‘the Bolshevik disease’. Everyone wants to blame another country.

More than 50 million people died in that influenza outbreak, more than twice as many as died in World War 1, the “Great War”. More people died in 1918, in one year, of the virus than in all four years of the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, that rifled through history as a horror story known as the Black Death. The three waves of the 20th century pandemic was the first truly world pandemic. All pandemics have had at least two waves – why should this one be any differnt?

What is a little different is the target audience. The 1918-1919 affair affected young people msot, those in their 20s and 30s, who were the ones travelling home from war more than other cohorts and as a result spread it further and faster, but also succumbed to it. Its the folks in their 50s and 60s that catch COVID-19 the most, with those in their 80s and 90s the most likely to die from it. Young people seemed to be relatively safe in the early days, but any complacency started to erode when young people were shown not only to not be completely immune, but to suffer unexpected effects, and of unknown future impact. Blood clots in legs leading to amputation, kidneys shutting down, lungs that may be forever weakened, lost senses of taste and smell, debilitating fatigue. And still no one really knows what and how long these “long haul” effects and after-effects are going to lastbecause this is still so new, and the data is still to be gathered as people’s experience with COVID-19 is tabulated and analyzed. 

At least we have wi-fi. Phones. Not like in 1918, when writing a letter was pretty much the only way to connect with someone. There was no TV, no bluray, no radio, no online, no social media or video conferencing. Only newspapers, that brought censored news that was already out of date before it was printed let alone delivered, which was maybe days later.

Life is so different from those long-ago days that any knowledge gained when navigating that century-old topography is more or less irrelevant today. This, then, is our adventure, a testing ground for our generation.