In her much-acclaimed 2017 book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, Laura Spinney recounted the story of a forgotten pandemic, which left between 50 and 100 million people dead worldwide. The Paris-based writer and science journalist’s work, which shows how the pandemic was shaped by the interaction of a virus and the humans it encountered, has special relevance today in the time of COVID-19. Excerpts from an interview:
Why was the 1918 flu pandemic called the Spanish Flu? Was it directly linked to the Indian soldiers in the Great War?
The story of the misnaming of the 1918 pandemic is well-known. World War I was on in 1918, and the belligerent nations censored their press, not wanting to damage their populations’ morale. Spain, however, was neutral in that war, and when the first cases of flu occurred there, they were widely reported. Incidentally, it was called the ‘Naples Soldier’ in Spain, after a catchy tune that was being played in local music halls at the time. The disease had already been in the United States for two months, and in France for several weeks at least. That information was, however, kept out of their newspapers. So the world came to see the disease as coming out of Spain. This was also encouraged by propagandists in other countries, whom it suited to shift the blame.
There was no particular link to Indian soldiers, though, of course, they were affected and they probably unwittingly helped spread it too, as they travelled. It, however, clearly shaped the pandemic and the Indian experience of it.
Did the 1918 pandemic alter the course of India’s independence movement in a significant way?
I think you can argue from the historical evidence that it did – and I am not the only one to have done so. The devastation wrought by the disease exacerbated social tensions in India, contributing to an eruption of violence and significantly strengthening the independence movement. By 1918, Mahatma Gandhi was being seen as a future leader of the nation, but he lacked grassroots support. That spring, in Gujarat, he had organised two satyagrahas, but these were followed by thousands of people, not hundreds of thousands. When the flu returned that autumn, he fell ill, along with other members of the independence movement who shared his ashram. Armistice in World War I was signed in November 1918, but the Rowlatt Act followed in India, which imposed the martial law. That led to a call for a satyagraha by a very weak Gandhi, and, eventually, the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy. What followed in 1920 was a special session of the Congress in Calcutta, where Gandhi promised self-rule within a year if Congress followed his satyagraha model all over India. By 1921, thanks in no small part to the freedom fighters who provided relief to millions of Indian during the flu, Gandhi had secured massive grassroots support.
Was the art and literature of the time in India reflective of the pandemic and the tragedy?
Again, I think you can argue that the pandemic had an impact on Indian literature. For example, Munshi Premchand who became the self-styled “chronicler of village life” around 1918, and the poet (Suryakant Tripathi) Nirala who wrote about the tragedy in his memoir, A Life Misspent (1939). This argument is necessarily speculative, since the writers are no longer here for us to question them, but this does pose some interesting research questions for future historians.
Despite being such an immense tragedy, why was the 1918 pandemic erased so quickly from public memory in India? Do wars attract more attention than disease?
There are many reasons, but in India’s case, I think, a contributing factor was that, for a very long time, Indians did not have an accurate sense of the scale of their loss. The dead had simply not been counted. Economist Siddharth Chandra’s work in 2012 (The evolution of pandemic influenza: evidence from India, 1918-19, published in BMC Infectious Diseases) estimated that 18 million was a reasonable estimate for the death toll in India as a whole, which is roughly 6 per cent of the population of the undivided subcontinent at that time. And, I do think that wars attract much more attention from writers than epidemics or pandemics.
The world has faced many epidemics more recently, such as Ebola in 2014-16 and H1N1 in 2009. In what ways has the human response not changed?
We tend to swing from panic, when the pandemic strikes to forgetting and complacency when it passes. We learn from each new outbreak, but, perhaps, not enough.