The crowd disease
FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - August 9, 2020 - 12:00am

No matter how many warnings are given, I still see crowds in the street not far from where I live. Some wear masks but a few walk around without. Truly a chaotic world where others do and others don’t. I think we might as well call it the crowd disease rather than COVID-19 so it is better understood.

My daughter posted a family picture with a caption – no one must be missing when the pandemic is over. I thought the post of the family picture most apt to illustrate tragedy. It is a closely knit group of individuals loving each other. Could we really tell now who would be missing in the picture later?

Many years from now the lists of daily figures, the countries most affected and the least published in media will not matter as much as the individual lives and deaths recorded in letters, diaries, photographs or larger accounts in biographies and memoirs.

An excellent book was written by Laura Spinney, a science journalist and a literary novelist. She made an oral history portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale. It was published in 2013 in French and English “The Pale Rider.” It was both a saga of tragedies and a detective story that does not just excavate but reimagine the past.

It is helpful in these times when we are faced with COVID-19.

“A book about the Spanish flu could so easily be dreary-complex pathology interwoven with pervasive tragedy. Not so Pale Rider. I’ve seldom had so much fun reading about people dying. Laura Spinney, a science journalist, is adept at explaining arcane scientific research in an entertaining, comprehensible way... With superb investigative skill and a delightfully light-hearted writing style, Spinney extends her analysis far beyond the relatively short duration of the plague.

“She finds it odd that we know so little about the worst calamity to affect the human race. So do I. There are tens of thousands of books about the First World War, yet that flu is, arguable, more relevant to our world. While global war is, we hope, a thing of the past, global pestilence hovers like a vulture.” – The London Times

“Influenza, like all viruses, is a parasite. Laura Spinney traces its long shadow over human history... Ms. Spinney ties the virulence of Spanish flu to its genetic irregularities and does a good job of explaining containment strategies through epidemiology... In Europe and North America, the first world war killed more than Spanish flu; everywhere else the reverse is true. Yet most narratives focus on the West... Ms. Spinney’s book goes some way to redress the balance.” – The Economist

“An excruciating report on the global disaster... Absorbing... Spinney’s important book does not attempt to offer light reading. No less than four pandemics are predicted in the 21st century. At least one will take the form of flu. Vaccination is not cheap, because the flu virus is constantly mutating. Annual vaccines currently offer the best protection. Britain does still possess a National Health Service. The enduring message of Spinney’s magisterial work is to underline just how vital that remarkable service is to the future security of an unusually privileged nation. Let’s hope the author’s book is read with care by Theresa May.  – The Observer

How does Spanish flu compare to coronavirus?

In our recent podcast, Laura Spinney told us: “You might have seen a figure floating around of a case fatality rate of 3.4 percent, which refers to the proportion of people who catch the COVID-19 infection who go on to die of it. The number that’s often quoted for the Spanish flu, for example, case fatality rate is 2.5 percent but it’s a very, very, very controversial figure because the numbers are so vague. I mean, we think that probably 50 million people died but there was no form of reliable test at the time so we can’t be sure about that and that just throws all the numbers out.

“So it’s really difficult to make the historical comparisons, even if you have accurate data now, which we don’t. So on both sides of the equation, if you like, it’s a moving target.

“We would obviously love to have a vaccine against COVID-19 now but we don’t and we may have to wait a year to 18 months for that. They had no vaccine at all in 1918. Or rather, they did make vaccines but they were useless, pretty much, because they were essentially vaccines against bacteria in the respiratory tract whereas, as we know, flu is a viral disease.

“It is thought the first cases were in military forts in the United States before spreading at an alarming rate to Europe.

“The Spanish flu was one of the deadliest disasters in history. It lasted for two years – between the first recorded case in March 1918 and the last in March 1920, an estimated 50 million people died, though some experts suggest that the total might actually have been twice that number.”

After one such raid in which her little dog is killed, 14-year-old Megan Wheeler, after burying the animal, kneels on the forest floor and asks God for deliverance. “If You don’t help us,” says Megan, “we’re all going to die. Please, just one miracle.”

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