A hundred years ago, humankind went through one of the worst phases in their history. A world war, a global pandemic and then another world war. We survived. After that, a lot of measures were put into place to ensure we don’t have to go through such devastation again. World War 3 is something we dread whenever the slightest international diplomacy failure happens. And it has worked, to an extent. We haven’t had to face a World War again. However, we haven’t been as vigilant about Global Pandemics. And today, we seem to be in the grip of something as dangerous as any – COVID -19. The Spanish Flu though overshadowed by the World Wars, was perhaps as big a disaster as either of the wars. We need to mobilize our nations today, as we would for a major war. Bill Gates had made a global call for this back in 2015.
We did not heed it. Today, we go to work and talk about deadlines and other stuff as if a global war is not waging on humanity. We need to take severe war-like action today. Before it is too late.
Perhaps it would be a good time to look back on the 100-year-old pandemic that almost sunk us. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse rode together a hundred years ago, and it would serve us well to remember that the horsemen always meet each other and reap together, even if one might arrive before others occasionally.
In 1918, during a century just like ours, in which the most modern of societies thought such epidemics were a thing of the past, people got a reminder that even seemingly routine illnesses can be potentially civilization threatening under the right conditions. A malady that would be dubbed the Spanish Flu struck while the devastating First World War was raging, and soon its death toll greatly surpassed that of the war’s.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about this flu was that at the time it hit, humanity had made great strides in medicine. But when American service personnel started showing symptoms, the experts were stumped. The author John Barry describes in The Great Influenza how sailors mysteriously began bleeding from their noses and ears, while others coughed blood. “Some coughed so hard the autopsies would later show they had torn apart abdominal muscles and rib cartilage,” Barry writes. Many were delirious or complained of severe headaches “as if someone were hammering a wedge into their skulls just behind the eyes” or “body aches so intense they felt like bones breaking.” Some of the men’s skin turned strange colors, from “just a tinge of blue around their lips or fingertips” to skin “so dark one could not tell easily if they were Caucasian or Negro.”
A couple of months before the appearance of these extraordinary symptoms, autopsies of crewmen from a British ship who had died after experiencing similar trials showed “their lungs had resembled those of men who had died from poison gas or pneumonic plague.”
More alarming was the speed and scope of the spreading, Barry writes, despite efforts to isolate and contain those who hadn’t even shown symptoms but had merely been exposed: “Four days after that Boston detachment arrived, nineteen sailors in Philadelphia were hospitalized. . . . Despite their immediate isolation and that of everyone with whom they had had contact, eighty-seven sailors were hospitalized the next day . . . two days later, six hundred more were hospitalized with this strange disease. The hospital ran out of empty beds, and hospital staff began falling ill.” As the sick overwhelmed the facility, officials began sending new patients to civilian hospitals, while military personnel continued moving among bases around the country, exposing ever more people.
What began in Philadelphia—at least in its most dangerous form—quickly advanced. In his new book, The End is Always Near, Dan Carlin writes, there was still an international war on, and modern transportation had made great strides, so the virus could get from place to place at a far greater pace than any previous pandemic could. The collision of this outbreak with this first period of true globalization was devastating. At its height, whole cities in the United States were virtually shut down, as areas, where human beings congregated, were closed to prevent people from transmitting the illness. People stayed home from school and work rather than risk exposure, and the gears of society in some places seemed imperiled by the justifiable fear of getting sick. By the time it receded in 1920, modern epidemiologists estimate that the flu had killed somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people; “roughly half of those who died were young men and women in the prime of their life, in their twenties and thirties,” Barry writes. “If the upper estimate of the death toll is true, as many as 8 to 10 percent of young adults then living may have been killed by the virus.”
The disease wasn’t just remarkable for the number of its victims, but also for the compressed nature of its devastating labors. Although it took two years to come and go, “perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918.” That amount of damage in that short a period of time is disorienting and potentially destabilizing for a society.
All this happened in an age when we understood a lot about biomedicine. We understood that germs spread disease; we understood how you prevented contact to limit exposure. Indeed, doctors quickly figured out that what was killing sailors in Philadelphia was a strain of influenza, but it was unlike any they had seen before, and nothing they did could contain it. As much as a fifth of the entire population of the planet contracted it, and as much as 5 percent died from it. In sheer numbers, it was the deadliest pandemic to hit humankind, but as a percentage of the human population alive at the time, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Black Death that hit western Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. So, humankind didn’t exactly dodge a bullet—the damage was severe and widespread—but it could have been much, much worse.
It still can be, Dan Carlin assures us, in a book that talks about enough civilizational collapses to give one ennui. The same sense of hubris affects us today as affected the generation that was blindsided by the Spanish Influenza. It’s hard to imagine a human society acting rationally or humanely if mortality levels began reaching catastrophic levels, Dan Carlin says. In the past, societies have been reshaped and at times have nearly crumbled under the weight of a pandemic. It’s possible that, facing mortality rates of 50, 60, or 70 percent—as people who lived through the Black Death did—we might do as they did: turn to religion, change the social structure, blame unpopular minorities and groups, or abandon previous belief systems. We can learn from how people in other eras responded to a catastrophic situation, and we can ask ourselves: With all our modern technology and science and medical knowledge, how do we respond?
What’s the likelihood that humanity has already experienced the worst plague it will ever encounter? In the famous science fiction classic The War of the Worlds, author H. G. Wells has the alien would-be conquerors defeated ultimately by Earth’s pathogens. Let’s hope those same planetary defense mechanisms don’t get us first. Those who regularly work with infectious diseases and see the Black Death–like damage that something like Ebola or Marburg virus can have on a small scale in isolated communities are all too aware of how a hemorrhagic fever virus in one global region, or an avian flu mutation somewhere else, could remind us that, just like the Titanic, our civilization is not unsinkable.