I’ve felt the urge to start writing and working again, and since I’m hanging out at the public library regularly while my son works on his G.E.D., I decided to take the opportunity to get some research done.
“The Pestilential Adventures of Mrs. Osgood Peabody” is calling for attention, so I decided to dig into the influenza pandemic of 1918 since that’s going to have a lot to do with the second half of the novel.
You know, considering what a devastating impact the so-called “Spanish flu” had on the world, you’d think at least my generation would have learned about it in our history classes, but I don’t even recall it being so much as mentioned until I was in college, and even then, it was in a literature class because we were reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” And that only because of some questions a classmate had about the death of the main character’s brother.
The one thing I’ve seen over and over again in my reading is how, after that dreadful year of 1918 through 1919, the survivors just wanted to forget it and move on. But the odd thing is, the Great Pandemic still resonates through our societies even now in ways that, well, I can clearly see it NOW, but before doing all this research, I just thought it was … well… just the way things were.
All those “don’t spit on the sidewalk” ordinances that you don’t now about until one of your kids or the guy you’re dating does it in front of a cop on the wrong day? Think it’s just a municipality being nit-picky or a way for a city to make revenue?
Nope, it’s a health ordinance that dates back to the 1918 pandemic. Doctors and health officials may not have known the direct cause of the flu, but they knew it was spread through body fluids and could float through the air on water vapor/droplets. So they passed temporary ordinances for the duration requiring people to wear face masks that tied behind their heads when out in public. And when they realized spitting on sidewalks and streets meant people were picking this stuff up on their shoes and carrying the contagion into their own homes, they passed ordinances to stop people spitting on sidewalks and put up signs and passed out handbills, etc.
The over-prescription of antibiotics can be traced back to 1918, and so can patients demanding antibiotics for everything. Doctors were helpless during the pandemic. There was literally nothing they could do, nothing they could prescribe to help their patients. As my mom said of the time before antibiotics, “All we had was alcohol, aspirin, ice, and painkillers.” There was quinine, but since the flu wasn’t malaria, it didn’t do a lot to help. Doctors at that time could barely make their patients more comfortable, and if the patient had the most severe form of the flu, they could only watch them die. Sometimes, it hit so fast that the victim would collapse and they were gone. So is it any wonder that when antibiotics came along, this wonderful class of miracle drugs that could cure diseases that had caused so much suffering for so long, doctors were prescribing them for just about everything? And parents (and patients) who had watched family members suffer and die during the pandemic were demanding antibiotics for every illness?
How about those elderly relatives of yours who say, “Doctors don’t know anything,” and just sit there and suffer? There’s a chance that they either watched someone they loved die in 1918-1919, or grew up hearing the story about someone they loved dying and the doctor not being able to help.
There were a lot of heroes from that time, but there were a lot of assholes. Heroes like the doctor on the health board in Manchester, England who realized quickly how deadly this strain of flu was and immediately sent out handbills to local factories and businesses, telling them if an employee was sick, sounded sick, looked sick, or hell, even if they were faking it and claiming to be sick, send that employee home and tell them to quarantine themselves for 3 weeks before returning to work, disinfect every single area that employee was in, and don’t force people to work sick. He closed down theaters, public transportation, and after several children literally died sitting in their desks while in class, convinced the city council to close the schools. He literally saved lives. 10,000 people in Manchester got sick, but only 329 died.
Then you have the asshole in London who refused to shut things down, saying there was no way to prevent people from getting sick so there was no use trying and with a war going on and the very survival of the British nation at stake, it was extremely un-patriotic to do something so trivial as to worry about getting the flu. I haven’t gotten that far in that part of the book I’m reading, because I had to stop, I was so furious, but I hope that asshole died.
In some ways, this stuff is kind of hard to read, considering what I went through back in January and February, but it’s also fascinating. Fascinating to realize so much of our public health policies in practically every country on this planet date back to the events of 1918.
You know how just before flu season rolls in, right around in September, all you hear on the news, on the radio, on social media, or see on billboards, on bus ads, or hear in the pharmacy is, “Flu shots are in! Get your flu shot!” Even your doctor will start bugging you about it. And I know there are a lot of people who won’t get their flu shot, or complain that they get the flu every time they get the flu shot. Well, let me tell you something. Getting the flu shot last year saved my fucking life. I had pneumonia bad enough to be hospitalized twice… but… I didn’t have the flu. In fact, I was the only person on my floor who didn’t have the flu. They gave me Tamiflu between hospitalizations to keep me from getting the flu, just in case, because I was that sick.
Anyway, I digress. Anyhow, you get harangued on every street corner, every time you turn on the TV, every time you get in your car to get your flu shot. And when the flu hits and the first cases roll in, you start getting reminded on what to do to NOT get the flu. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, keep hand sanitizer on you, don’t go to work sick, etc. etc. Well, there’s a reason for that, and it all goes back to 1918.
Seriously, it does.
It wasn’t just a normal flu virus that year. It was a lethal version that had stewed over a summer after a first wave in the spring, changing and mutating in the muddy fields of France between trenches, bathed in mustard gas and incubating in the rotting corpses of soldiers lying in No Man’s Land who couldn’t be retrieved because it was too dangerous, and it traveled in crowded Allied troop ships to various embarkation points and finally came ashore in the flooded lungs of three sailers in Boston. And if just one fucking health official had said, “You know, this bug seems to be really contagious, maybe we should isolate these guys and limit the number of those attending them, just in case.”
But they didn’t, and it walked out of the hospital and into the civilian population. And people died. By the millions.
So, when you’re watching the news during flu season and they tell you to wash your hands, to not touch your face (because the virus will go from your hands to your face and through your mouth and nose and make you sick), to wear a fucking mask, to NOT go to work if you’re sick, or not send your kids to school sick… LISTEN. Because every year, health officials tell us this, flu season passes, and everyone says, “Look, hardly anybody died, it wasn’t that bad, they were just over-reacting.”
Yeah, you know why? Because the one time they didn’t “over-react,” millions died. Not just here, but all over the world. And the reason we haven’t been dying by the millions since is because lessons were learned. There’s a reason they taught you in elementary school to wash your hands before eating and after using the restroom, why they taught you to use tissues to blow your nose instead of handkerchiefs and dispose of them, why they taught you to cough and sneeze into your elbows instead of your hands.
1918. That’s why.
Later, I’ll post a list of my source material that I’ve been reading through and watching.
But for now? GO GET YOUR DAMN FLU SHOTS, PEOPLE! And take my advice, if your doctor or pharmacy has the quadrivalent shot, or what they call “the quad,” get it. Normally, the flu shot you get is called a “trivalent” shot or “the tri.” The tri shot protects you against both influenza A viruses, but only one B virus, and it’s a guess which B virus will be circulating any particular year. See, if you get your flu shot and you get the flu, it’s usually because you got the one virus your shot didn’t protect against.
The quadrivalent shot, or “the quad,” is designed to protect against four different flu viruses; two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses. If you’re able to get it, get it. If you’re not, please still get your flu shot. It really does matter. The more of us that get it, the more of us there are to protect people who can’t get vaccinated, like babies under 6 months of age, or people who are immunocompromised because of autoimmune diseases, or taking chemo for cancer.
Get your flu shot. It matters.