A virus spreading around the world, aided by international travel. Difficulties getting people to follow social distancing. Debates and disagreement over the health impact of wearing facemasks. Controversies over whether or not schools should be closed. Inadequate public health information for ethnic minority communities. The origins of Donald Trump’s wealth.
No, this isn’t a piece about a book on 2020, it’s a piece about a book on the misnamed Spanish flu of the early twentieth century. Long treated as a historical quirk – that mostly forgotten thing which killed more people than the First World War – the global pandemic has become rather more newsworthy since we’ve faced a similar challenge a century on.
Many of the parallels between then and now are striking, though the one big difference – the huge advances in medical science and in public health expertise – make the outcome mercifully different.
Laura Spinney‘s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World is a great and highly accessible guide to one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies.
It is not a detailed academic study. Statistics, for example, are frequently only mentioned in passing, with little detailed analysis presented to back them up or put them in context. The endnotes are fairly briefly for the amount of information presented in the book and there is no bibliography. That said, the book has a good reputation and it looks as if the evidence presented is robust; it’s just presented in a popular style which means you often have to take that on trust. Rather than taking the form of an academic study, the book takes the form of a (very) long read piece of journalism, which makes sense as the author is a science journalist.
The sheer volume of information – and the size of the numbers involved – make the book a little overwhelming at times. It’s easy to end up grazing through several pages without quite taking in what they really mean. But that’s as much on the reader as the author.
Pale Rider ranges widely over history, with many digressions into earlier outbreaks and medical history. There are even a couple of paragraphs on how animals use social distancing from their brethren to protect against diseases
Read it and you’ll also find out why ‘the Spanish flu’ got that inaccurate name.