How a chapter in the past can help us tackle the coronavirus outbreak

A stock image of people wearing face masks on the Tube. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire.

A stock image of people wearing face masks on the Tube. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

ANDREW ADONIS looks at the Spanish flu to help us understand the coronavirus outbreak.

There is nothing like a pandemic to make politicians look ridiculous in their claims of national sovereignty and "taking back control". As one cartoonist put it this week, in a bubble coming from the mouth of our beloved prime minister lecturing experts in white coats: "If we don't like what the virus has to offer Britain, we should just walk away!"

The issue is basically the same as for climate change, but coronavirus might kill you this month or next, so it seems altogether more urgent than global warming.

However, if politicians don't create pandemics directly, they do indirectly by the conditions they create which allow them to flourish. Secrecy is the scourge of effective action in the earliest stages of an outbreak. Surprise, surprise, China and Iran appear to be the epicentre. Even the Iranian deputy minister of health has gone down with the virus, a day after appearing at a press conference to spread reassurance while mopping his brow feverishly.

All of which is making the history of pandemics suddenly interesting and significant.

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I knew vaguely that Spanish flu killed more people after the First World War than all the fighting of the four years put together, maybe as many as 100 million in the three years it took to eradicate. But I had not realised why it was called Spanish flu or how closely related it was to the operation of the war itself.

It got its name not because it was worse in Spain than elsewhere but because wartime censorship kept reports of it out of the papers in its early stages in most counties affected, including Britain. Spain was neutral and the papers were free to report its effects, including the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII. So it became known as Spanish flu.

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Actually, the centre of the outbreak appears to have been Etaples in France, a major troop staging and hospital camp. The camp was way overcrowded, with 100,000 soldiers passing through each day, including victims of chemical attacks.

The camp was also home to a piggery and poultry was brought in from the surrounding villages in large quantities. Modern researchers believe that a precursor virus, carried by birds, might have mutated and migrated to pigs near the front.

There are many other ideas as to how and where it may have started. One is that the large number of Chinese labourers at work behind French and British lines might have been the source, spreading a virus that originated back home. Another suggests that it originated in the US and spread through military camps.

What virtually all of the possible explanations have in common is the significance of the war - which was thoroughly man-made - as a major factor in its deadly and rapid transmission. The appalling conditions and hygiene it engendered, the secrecy and blatant lying of the wartime media and the lack of international cooperation were bad enough. But even within individual countries, most of the governmental leaders who ought to have made it their priority were too busy devising new and better means for slaughtering their wartime enemies abroad - and often at home too.

Reading the accounts of the Spanish flu for the first time, I am struck how much like the Black Death it was in its lethal scale and impact. We have long seen the First World War - supposedly the "war to end all wars" - as an outbreak of medieval barbarity, except that, together with the succeeding wars and revolutions it unleashed, it was worse than anything seen in the Middle Ages. Add in Spanish flu and the early 20th century appears more and more a reincarnation of Hieronymus Bosch's vision of hell.

The biggest mistake of all would be to think that, a century on, we are so much more civilised and less prone to the impact of pandemics and human catastrophes. Coronavirus needs maximum and urgent international action and coordination, and every other non-essential activity of government is less important than eradicating it. The same is true, on a longer-term basis, of limiting climate change too.

Oh, and the name. It took me a few days to stop reading 'coronavirus' as 'Coriolanus,' a play about the very worst of political leadership, which has a certain affinity. Not least the lines: "Let me have war, say I: it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it's spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men."

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