The year 1933 was an important one in both biology and politics. In biology, that was the year researchers in England discovered that the infecting agent of influenza was not a bacterium, but a virus. Three microbiologists – Wilson Smith, Christopher Andrews, and Patrick Laidlaw – took nasal drippings from Andrews, who had come down with the flu, and injected it into the noses of a number of ferrets. Two days later, when some of the ferrets began sneezing and others did not, they examined the difference between the two groups and found that it was an antiviral, not an antibacterial, agent that attacked the influenza pathogen. Until recently they had been using dogs, but switched to ferrets because they needed a lot of them, and ferrets breed faster than dogs. Plus they’re quieter.
The flu that Christopher Andrews caught was part of an epidemic that was sweeping through Europe that year. It was nothing like the 1918 pandemic, which killed 40 million people, but it was serious enough in its consequences.
In Germany, one of those who became ill was the writer Heinrich Böll, who was fifteen at the time. Being a writer, Böll naturally tied the influenza epidemic to the larger social issues that were in operation at the time. “On January 30, 1933,” he later wrote in his memoir, What’s to Become of the Boy?, “the fifteen-year-old is ill in bed with a severe case of flu, victim of an epidemic that I consider to have been given insufficient consideration in analyses of Hitler’s seizure of power.”
Böll was specific about the date – January 30, 1933 – because that was the day German president Paul von Hindenburg made Adolf Hitler the Chancellor of Germany, effectively handing over political control of the country to a paranoid, racist, bombastic madman. Hitler’s seizure of power is most often attributed to the convergence of two factors: economic hardship as a result of the Great Depression, which had hit Europe in 1929, and resentment among Germans of the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed economic sanctions on Germany after the First World War. Hitler’s speeches and Brown-Shirted henchmen stirred up latent political unrest and xenophobia, blaming the Depression and war reparations on “foreign influences.” However, as Böll suggests, it is not difficult to imagine German citizens including influenza – which since 1918 had been known as “Spanish flu” – on the list of foreign influences that were endangering the health of the German population.
In 2005, the American National Institute of Health issued a report entitled The Threat of Pandemic Infection: Are We Ready?, which laid out the lessons that should have been learned from the pandemic of 1918-19. Great strides in microbiology had been taken in the intervening decades, but to the question, Are we ready? the answer was no, we were not. One of the report’s authors, John M. Barry, whose book about the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, had just won the Keck Communications Award from the National Academies of Science, summed up his contribution this way:
“Virtually every expert on influenza believes another pandemic is nearly inevitable, that it will kill millions of people, and that it could kill tens of millions – and a virus like the 1918, or H5N1, might kill a hundred million or more – and that it could cause economic and social disruption on a massive scale. This disruption could kill as well.”
And yet, to all appearances, the global threat of Covid-19 came suddenly, out of nowhere, and has had such devastating effects because no one was adequately prepared for it.
We are – most of us – responding intelligently to the health issues associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re conforming to government restrictions on travel, shopping, and gathering. Those of us who have travelled are quarantining ourselves or allowing ourselves to be quarantined. All, or most, of us are isolating ourselves in our homes, because we know that, as John M. Barry said recently, “straying can kill.” We are being socially responsible, community minded, unselfish citizens, because we are afraid of dying or causing someone else to die. And our concern is not just for the elderly. Covid-19 only appears to be favouring the people who have had their three-score years and ten. Forty percent of those who have recently tested positive in the U.S. are under 54 years of age. In Kingston, Ontario, where I live, the majority of cases have been under 50.
But, as Böll’s remark attests, we must also respond intelligently to the political issues associated with the pandemic. This may prove as important as our response to the medical crisis. When in 1933 Böll’s mother heard that Hitler had been made Chancellor of Germany, she said: “Well, that means there’ll be war.” And she was right. Not because one man was out there stirring up fear and hatred; she was right because too many people listened to him. Social disruption, in the form of racism and xenophobia in the population of a single country, led directly to a second world war in which 60 million people died.