Have you ever heard of the so-called Spanish Flu? I say so-called because it actually began in the heartland of the United States but had such devastating effect in Spain that it unofficially took on that country’s name. This influenza was a pandemic that spread around the world and was particularly deadly. For example, one third of the population of Labrador died. Entire villages were killed in far separated places like the Aleutian Islands, Mexico, and India, where over 20 million people died.
I know these things because I have read a book entitled “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Greatest Pandemic in Human History” by John M. Barry. Barry does an excellent job of re-creating social conditions of 1918 and the efforts of science to catch up and get ahead of the disease. He does a fine job of reminding his readers that the influenza virus was a living organism that sought first and foremost to reproduce itself. It attacked and mutated as circumstances dictated in order to survive. Science did not defeat it. It lessened as it reverted to the mean: Having mutated to its most virulent form, Barry posits, the virus reverted to a less lethal form having killed the most vulnerable and left survivors immune. Having threatened the downfall of civilization in its most deadly mutation, it further mutated to a less deadly form to ensure its own survival.
For example, Barry points out that in the week ending October 16, 1918, influenza killed 4,597 people in Philadelphia. That is a staggering statistic. Yet by October 26, just 10 days later, the number of new cases of influenza had dropped so significantly that the ban on public gatherings was lifted. This particular virus struck quickly, was extremely lethal, and then just as suddenly faded back into the weeds. Neither vaccines nor face masks stopped it. It jumped from animal to human seeking new hosts. It ran rampant around the world devastating the population. And then it stopped.
I have been following the progress of the coronavirus in France because I have a former student who is spending a semester in Toulouse. She is well as far as I know. Last Friday there were 38 cases of coronavirus in France. On Monday, it was 130. Today (March 3) it is 191. Apparently Italy has been the breeding ground in Europe this time as Spain was in 1918. Most of the outbreak in France has occurred in regions north of Paris; my former student is in the south. If this virus behaves like its 1918 cousin, this will of course change. Italy is classified as a Level 3 country of risk. France is at a Level 2. Both Loyola University and the University of Illinois have pulled their study-abroad students from Italy this past weekend. This is a wise decision. Barry points out that the 1918 virus was especially deadly for young people between the ages of 20 and 30 having to do with the development of their lungs and their immune systems.
Barry provides great detail on how human bodies responded to the 1918 virus. Once the virus reached the lungs, the body’s response was to swarm it with antibodies that also destroyed lung tissue. In effect the body killed itself in order to kill the virus. The stronger the immune system, the stronger the response to invasion of the lungs, and the greater the devastation of lung tissue. All of this may seem counter-intuitive, but that is how our bodies work.
In 1918, France responded to the outbreak of influenza by closing schools around the country, though public transport was allowed to continue. In 2020, France has closed schools in regions north of Paris, but allows trains and busses to run between those regions and the rest of the country. Barry reports that only one method thwarted the outbreak in 1918. One city in Colorado and isolated islands like American Samoa simply closed themselves off from contact with the rest of the world. No one came in or out of these sealed-spaces until the pandemic was over. Some British airlines this weekend announced they were suspending flights to and from France, but also major American cities and European, African, and Asian capitals. European trade ministers are bemoaning the billions lost every week in tourist dollars during the current health crisis.
The French have found that the hand sanitizers they crave are mostly made in China, where production has dropped precipitously because of the (wait for it) coronavirus. They have been told to no longer practice the bise, the traditional French greeting of kissing on the cheek. I can easily picture traditionally fiercely independent French people arguing on the street whether or not to offer the bise when greeting one another. This could lead to an entirely new generational take on classics like Waiting for Godot.
My own ACME University sent a lamentable warning to students abroad of which the takeaway message was: If you panic and come home too early you will receive no academic credit for the semester. The message was several pages long, all about self-care and healthy practices. But the students got the message, as did their parents: We’re keeping your money; what you get out of the semester is up to you. When the weather turns nice in April, the virus will die. But we’re keeping your money.