A few days ago, the media reported on a “massive party” held in contravention of the UK’s emergency rules on social distancing, rules that have been introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m saddened to say that the party went down in Derby, just ten or so miles from Platypus Towers, although to be fair I guess it could have happened anywhere. Shortly afterwards there were reports of a pub holding a “lock-in” for regular drinkers at Sutton-in-Ashfield, also just a few miles from where I’m writing this, in flagrant disregard of the restrictions currently in place.
While most of us are adapting to the current restrictions, a few of our fellows seem to feel that they’re being unfairly treated. They appear to believe that they’ve been singled out for what the Americans might call cruel and unusual punishment, and that they are therefore justified in continuing to do their own thing, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. Their actions are making a clear statement: “these rules, these restrictions on personal liberty, don’t apply to us.”
When you’re in the midst of a crisis there’s a natural tendency to assume that your misery is unique, that no-one’s ever had it quite so bad before. But it ain’t necessarily so. COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic in human history, nor, I’m certain, will it be the last. This should come as no surprise – after all, it is in the nature of bugs to mutate, just as it’s in the nature of our immune systems to adapt to those mutations. That battle is set to continue until the end of time.
The so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918/19 was by far the worst pandemic of the last century. It’s estimated that around 500 million people caught it, which amounted to about a third of the world’s population at that time. The death rate was huge:
The number of deaths [from Spanish flu] was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.Source: Website of the CDC (The USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Meanwhile, at the time of writing (10am, 4 April 2020) Worldometer reports 1.1 million cases COVID-19 worldwide, and 59,247 deaths out of world population of 7.7 billion. Plainly, during an ongoing crisis any such numbers must be treated with a huge amount of caution; however the contrast between Spanish flu and COVID-19 is stark.
In quoting these figures I’m not seeking to minimise the current crisis, nor to underestimate the suffering of those affected, their families and wider communities. And it’s also plain that while Spanish flu is history, COVID-19 exists in the here and now: nobody knows when it will end, or just how the numbers will stack up when it does. However, the evidence is that humanity has been through something similar before, and had to find ways of coping. Maybe we can learn from history?
I’ve been vaguely aware of Spanish flu for as long as I can remember. As a student of history it’s one of those things I just picked up along the way. But not for its own sake: rather, it was merely a sad footnote to the history of World War 1, the ironically dubbed war to end all wars. It never occurred to me to look beyond the numbers, to question how society a century ago tried to cope with a rampant epidemic.
Trawling the Internet today I’m not surprised to learn that, here in the UK, we coped badly. Medical science was in its infancy and the disease was poorly understood. In any case the National Health Service did not exist, meaning that a co-ordinated strategy for dealing with the pandemic was impossible.
Moreover, the State had minimal ability to influence and control societal behaviour. A couple of weeks ago, before he himself went down with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television and ordered citizens to stay in their houses unless they had a reasonable excuse such as shopping for basic necessities, seeking or providing medical assistance, taking exercise (alone, or with other members of the household only), or travelling to or from work (but only when it is impossible to work from home).
It is inconceivable that, in 1918/19, Prime Minister Lloyd George could have envisaged such draconian measures – government’s willingness to reach into the day-to-day lives of its citizens was much more constrained a century ago. Communicating the need for “social distancing” would in any case have been fraught with difficulty without the broadcast media, Internet, and mobile phone technology that we take for granted today. And even had such restrictions been successfully communicated, enforcing them would have been all but impossible.
As the Spanish flu crisis deepened, responses to it were locally devised rather than nationally prescribed, and as a result were patchy. For example
In Rotherham, posters were displayed in prominent parts of the town, and health visitors and school nurses distributed leaflets from door to door, encouraging people to keep dirty handkerchiefs out of the reach of children. The Borough of Hackney recommended that victims stay isolated, go to bed the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash and salt. In Keswick, Cumbria, the Medical Officer arranged for a free supply of “disinfectant mixture”. Every morning, formalin was sprinkled on the floor of Brighton’s public library and post office, and tramcars were fumigated in Doncaster.Source: History Extra website. Retrieved 4 April 2020
Attempts at social distancing were at best half-hearted. At the height of the outbreak hundreds of elementary schools were closed, but only when staff absenteesim forced the issue. Secondary schools remained open throughout, and church services proceeded as usual. Factories continued to operate, and there was no ban on entertainments and public gatherings.
In short, there was no “lockdown,” as we now understand it, in the UK’s response to Spanish flu in 1918/19. Individuals, families and communities struggled on as best they could. The vast majority got through it, though it must have been a traumatic experience.
However, around 228,000 British citizens died as a result of the Spanish flu pandemic. And I’m sure that every last one of them would have put up with the temporary inconveniences caused by 2020-style social distancing, if they had believed doing so would give them – and their families, friends and neighbours – a better chance of survival.
If they’d been offered a simple trade, a lockdown or a life, they would have chosen life. Sadly they didn’t have that choice. We do.
Generally speaking I’ve been impressed by the way people have adapted to the COVID-19 crisis, supporting one another, putting differences aside and doing the right thing. But, as my opening paragraph illustrated, there are still some moaners, some selfish individuals who feel their right to party supersedes society’s short-term need for social distancing.
I get it, I really do. What we’re being asked to do is contrary to our custom and practice as citizens of a proud, free democracy. Moreover humans are primates, social animals. We’re hardwired for social interaction, not social distancing.
But now is not the time to stand on principle, to play at politics or to throw our toys out of the pram. Together, we need to hold our nerve, to do the right thing by our families, friends and neighbours, and to trust that our scientists and medical professionals will help us find a way through the crisis.
There will be time enough to party when all this is over.