from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Justinian’s Flea and the Spanish Flu…

December 27. UPDATE. So Christmas is over and we are still (holiday-less) in Adelaide while the virus bubbles away in Sydney, NSW. The numbers testing positive are low – yesterday 7, today 5 more positive cases have been diagnosed in the ‘Avalon’ Cluster that now stands at 130. NSW Health have conducted over 4 million tests. The Northern Beaches area of Sydney has gone back into lockdown. Our famous New Year’s Eve Sydney fireworks will go ahead in a shortened 7-minute form, but no public will be allowed on the foreshore lining the harbour. (Often a million people gather). Chief Health Officer, Kerry Chant, said that people are testing positive 11-12 days after infection so she justified the requirement stipulating 14 days of isolation after contact with an infected person. Serological testing is showing that the majority of cases are connected to the Avalon outbreak.

Obviously, we remain vulnerable to infection outbreaks with any international arrivals. All arrivals into Australia are significantly down but still enough people are arriving for it to be a challenge for quarantine management at ports of entry. In November 2020, just under 30,000 people arrived from overseas, divided almost equally between Australian citizens and others. (Compare with a year ago: November 2019, 746,080 Australian citizens arrived and 978,440 non-Australians arrived).

One year of Australian citizen arrivals
One year of non-citizen arrivals

Tonight, it was announced that the new strain of the virus, B117, from the UK, which is shutting international borders has been detected in six travellers arriving into Australia from the UK: two are in South Australia. These individuals are all in hotel quarantine. Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, says Australia will not be banning flights from the UK.

I note that our neighbour, Indonesia, is requiring all international arrivals to have a negative Covid-19 (PCR) test done within two days before arrival. Hotel quarantine is also required. But no international tourists are allowed into Indonesia. Australian immigration do not require arrivals to show recent test results but there is media discussion asking, why not?

All the recent news and discussions about the virus shows how we are all learning more and more: how it is highly infectious; how better to treat people; how poorer countries are suffering and their death rates are under-reported, how we need to worry about the rise of mutations. We are all learning the language of epidemiologists and vaccine research. Experts abound!

Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen

I am reading Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen, (Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe) a history more about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire under Emperor Justinian (527-565CE) than the pandemic. While only part of the book is about this bubonic plague there are many parallels to reflect on.

‘During these times, there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.’ (Quoted by William Rosen in Justinian’s Flea by historian, Procopius of Caesarea.)

The medical treatment of the 6th Century was ‘weighted towards spells, folk remedies and charms’ including saint’s relics and magic amulets‘ (page 212). Application of cold and hot water was suggested. The only possible respite seemed to have been in the use of the opium poppy juice!  Procopius of Caesarea blamed the plague on Emperor Justinian. Other Christian leaders blamed the plague on peoples’ wickedness. Millions died: between 20 and 50% of the population over the 200 years as the waves of infection criss-crossed Europe and Middle-eastern empires.

Nowadays, we too have magic treatments and strange advice: Trump’s internal UV light treatment, alternative medications (Chloroquine), garlic, drinking water every 15 minutes to wash the virus into the stomach; saline nasal washes and avoiding 5G networks.

The Plague of Justinian arrived in 542 CE with the ubiquitious rats on the grain shipments from Egypt and thence through the Mediterranean shipping lanes to ports and onward along the Roman roads (in carts bearing grain with the hidden black rats carrying the fleas) into the interior. The main plague was zoonotic so depended on the movement of Rattus rattus.

At first, our Covid-19 pandemic spread through air travellers – so much faster than Justinian’s plague.

William Rosen argues that Justinian’s plague changed history: it weakened the waring empires of the Romans and the Persians (the Sassanid Empire). Justinian was unable to extend his initial reconquest successes in Italy. The way was open for the rise of the Islamic people led at first by the righteous caliphs.

And so with us. It is arguable that both the USA, UK and hence the EU have been weakened by recent events coupled with popularist leaders in the UK and USA. It has hastened the rise of China to world economic significance and power. But on the other hand, without Covid-19, Trump might have been re-elected. His and his administration’s mishandling of the pandemic was enough in the forefront of citizens’ concerns to persuade those vacillating voters to cast a vote for Biden.

The Spanish flu of 1918-1920 was an H1N1 virus originating in birds, probably in North America. My father, Mervyn Smithyman, (1911-2008) loved to tell stories of his childhood in Nyasaland (Malawi) where the family moved after the First World War. But before that, my grandfather was with the South African Army in German East Africa fighting General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces and he did not return until late 2019. My grandmother stayed in Wepener in the Orange Free State with her 7 young children.

My father was 8 years old when the Spanish Flu swept through Southern Africa. He and Harold, his elder brother, had vivid memories of those days.

Harold. ‘At the end of the war, before Dad got back, the Spanish Influenza arrived. I was a Wolf Cub and we had to go round to the Market Square where they had clothes boiling in a huge cauldron. These charity workers had a big billycan to take from door from door and people went in and cleaned out and I waited outside. I wore a little packet of garlic round my neck and then Mum said, ‘No! I had to stop!’ I was then sent away to get away from the infection.’

My Father. ‘One by one the rest of the family got sick except Mum and me. Then she got sick and I can remember she was telling me how to go the kitchen to get soup. People came to the door to help but she said that she would not accept charity. Mum told me from her sick bed how to get to the kitchen to get the soup.’

‘That was all fine for a little while and then I said, “Mum I have a headache!”’

‘Now she had to get up, otherwise there was no way we were going to survive. But she got up. She could not stand so she crawled to the kitchen. I remember she gave us some soup to bring back. Every one of us survived the influenza. The carts were passing the door with the corpses of hundreds of people.’

We are not at the end of the Covid-19 story. 2021 will be a long year as we wait for vaccination and desperately hope that a nastier strain of the virus does not develop and catch us before it is dampened down into the furthest little corners of the world. But I fear that we will all harbour a new anxiety about our world.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Unprecedented”?

May 16th

How often have we heard government Ministers bleating that the global Covid-19 pandemic is “unprecedented” by way of an excuse for their incompetence?  I can only conclude that they either rely on different dictionaries from the ones I use, or that they prefer not to go near a dictionary because they like words to mean what they want them to mean rather than what they do actually mean.  The Oxford Concise defines ‘unprecedented’, entirely unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘having no precedent’ or ‘unparalleled’; and my Chambers, which often allows itself to be more idiosyncratic than the Oxford, defines it, no less unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘of which there has been no previous instance.’  

One doesn’t need to go back as far as the Black Death, which killed an estimated 50 million people, including roughly 60% of the entire population of Europe, in the 14th century to know that it is wholly untrue to claim that Covid-19 is ‘unparallelled’ as a pandemic.  Three centuries later, in 1665, the plague is estimated to have killed more than 20% of the population of London.  Even with a sequence of potential further ‘spikes’, Covid-19 seems unlikely to devastate London as badly as that, in spite of its being, thus far, our worst hit city.  But there is no need to delve too far back in history to find precedents and parallels:  the 20th century provided at least three comparable pandemics.

The 1918 H1N1 ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic killed at least 30 million people world-wide.  Estimates of the death toll range from 30 to 100 million and the disease often manifested itself far more rapidly and dramatically than Covid-19, with some people waking up feeling well in the morning but dying before the end of the day.  The H2N2 ‘Asian’ influenza pandemic in 1957-8 resulted in well over a million deaths, with 40-50 percent of the world’s population being infected.  By early 1958 as many as 9 million people in UK are estimated to have been victims, with over 600 deaths in one week being recorded in October 1957.  And in 1968 the H3N2 ‘Hong Kong’ flu pandemic was responsible for around 3 million deaths, with some 30,000 deaths in UK.  That virus spread so rapidly that an estimated 500,000 people had been infected within two weeks of the disease being identified.  This century, the Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-15, and the rest of the world was only spared because Ebola, unlike the other three viruses mentioned above, doesn’t spread through the air.   So precisely what is supposed to be ‘unprecedented’ about Covid-19?

It is, of course, possible that those among our English Nationalist Cabinet Ministers who aren’t deliberately lying when they tell us that Covid-19 is ‘unprecedented’ are simply too dim to know what the word means, and think it means “unpredictable”.  It would be interesting to know precisely what the average IQ is of a Cabinet that still apparently thinks that a hard Brexit is a good idea, even in present circumstances.  But even if they do think Covid-19 couldn’t have been predicted, they are wrong.  In a TED talk in April 2015 Bill Gates described the situation very starkly: ‘We are not ready…. We need to get going because time is not on our side.  If we start now we can be ready for the next epidemic.’   

But our ideologically-driven UK government was far too busy being obsessed with its ‘austerity’ shibboleth and its suspicion of foreigners to ‘get going’ on anything else.  The State had to be shrunk; the cost of public services, including the NHS, had to be cut; the funding available to the local councils responsible for social care needed to be driven down (too bad about the consequential increase in childhood poverty and reliance on food-banks); and so on.   Making life as difficult as possible for immigrants, including asylum seekers, also kept government busy.  Not being ready for the next epidemic has inevitably resulted in a peace time ballooning of the National Debt with few, if any precedents.

Talking about the Covid-19 pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is, whether deliberately duplicitous or simply ignorant, a denial of history:  a convenient forgetting both of the other pandemics that have ravaged the world in the past, including the relatively recent past, and of the many warnings of the likelihood of equally devastating pandemics in the future.  As George Santayana said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Memories of Contagion

1919. My grandmother, Catherine Smithyman, and 4 of her 7 children. My father, Mervyn Smithyman is on the left.

1961. I was a thirteen-year-old travelling by bus from Florence to Venice as my father shared his story of the Spanish Influenza of 1919. I can still see in my mind’s eye the flat Italian landscape with little stone villages passing by as he told me how his mother had ministered to her seven small children while she herself was sick and unable to walk. His father had not yet returned home from the war in German East Africa where the British South African forces were mopping up after the guerrilla battles against the famous General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Schutztruppe . My father wept as he told the story. I had never before seen my father weep.

Over thirty years later, I taped an interview with my father and my uncle about their memories of the Spanish flu.

In 1919 the family were living in Bloemfontein, South Africa.  My father was the third child and 8 years old.

Uncle Harold: ‘At the end of the war, before Dad got back, the Spanish Influenza arrived. I was a Wolf Cub and we were sent to the Market Square where they had clothes boiling in a huge cauldron. These do-gooders had a big billycan to take from door from door and people went in and cleaned out and I waited outside. I wore a little packet of garlic round my neck and this went on till Mum said, ‘No! I had to stop!’ I was then sent out to Tempe Park School to get away from the infection.’

My father: ‘One by one the rest of the family got sick except Mum and me. Then she got sick and I can remember she was telling me how to go to the kitchen to get soup. People came to the door to help but she said that she would not accept charity. She told me from her sick bed to go to the kitchen to get soup.

That was all fine for a little while and then I said, ‘Mum I have a headache!’

Now she had to get up, otherwise there was no way we were going to survive. But she got up. She could not stand so she crawled to the kitchen. I remember she gave us some soup to bring back. Every one of us survived the influenza. The carts were passing the door with the corpses of hundreds of people. There were more people killed with the Spanish Influenza than in the Great War.’

I think we need to look back on such personal memories: to remember what our mothers and grandmothers did to care for us. That we are here, that we have survived so long, is a daily blessing for us.