The 1918 Flu Pandemic – Leviathan – Extra History – #5


*splash* A body hits the water. Days earlier, armed military police
had herded troops onto the Leviathan sealing them
in watertight compartments. It was quarantine of a sort. If one trooper had the flu, it would only affect
the bunk mates sealed in with him. It spread anyway. There is no more room
in the sickbay, the mess hall or any of
the other makeshift hospitals. Patients lie on deck in the sun and wind. And bodies only have one place to go. At the rail, a chaplain mutters a prayer. *splash* Another man disappears
into the Atlantic. *splash* the war will be over. *splash* [Music] “Birth of the People” Leviathan isn’t
the only plague ship. There are many like it. The New Zealand transports
HMS Tahiti and Mantua deliver
the silent visitor to Africa. Infected ships pass the flu to dock workers
each time they stop to take on coal. From there, it rides the rail lines
into the interior, then spreads to the countryside
on bicycles, horseback, or by car. Each of the three waves
of the virus: the mild first wave, the deadly second wave, and the less lethal third wave radiate across the globe. It storms every continent sparing only Antarctica. Tracking the disease
from the surgeon general’s office in Washington, DC, Welch’s friend, and replacement, Victor Vaughan
expresses alarm at the flu’s progress. “If this epidemic continues
at its mathematical rate of acceleration”, he writes, “civilization could easily disappear
from the face of the earth within a matter
of a few more weeks”. He looks at his map. Kimberley, South Africa. When people speak about the flu, they’ll always remember the sound
of hooves and wagon wheels. It’s the sound
of the collection wagons heavy with corpses. The people of Kimberley
knew it was coming. Railway workers tracked its progress
inland on the rail line. It advanced a thousand miles
within a week. Kimberley is a diamond mining city, the largest
in South Africa. And people here live
and work in close quarters. Migrant laborers sleep in crammed concrete
bunk houses; famous for spreading sickness. People begin
to fear each other. When someone sniffles in a shop, people turn away, veins turning to ice. “The distinctive scent of the flu
is like straw”, they say. “You can tell
infected houses by the smell”. Fear leads to dark places. Whites begin blaming
their black neighbors for the disease and within five years their concern with “hygiene” will put forward a law that bans black South Africans
from entering urban areas without a pass. It’s another brick
in the rising wall of Apartheid. Across South Africa, the trauma brings
several village prophets to the forefront, preaching religious
and social revival while describing visions they’ve had
while in the grip of Spanish flu. Some later ally with the African National Congress
to fight for political rights. They will be jailed
or locked in insane asylums. The flu, with no concern
for politics, rages on. It’s good that the mining city of Kimberley
is full of excavation equipment because they’ll need it for the graves. 2,500 miners died
in the autumn wave. A quarter of the city’s
working population. By the time the epidemic is over, 9% of Kimberley citizens are buried
in the diamond-sheltering earth. The country, the worst hit in Africa
will lose half a million people. But another colony will see
at least 20 times more death: India. Traditionally, Indians cremate their dead
on the
riverbank and release their ashes
into the Ganges. But there’s nothing left to burn. Dead bodies clog the wide river gathering in clumps. India is no stranger to outbreaks. Just two decades before,
the country had battled black plague. But the behavior
of the British Colonials during that time had made Indians wary
of Western medicine. They’d herded people into “health camps”, burned personal possessions and sprayed carbolic acid into homes. In other places, they did nothing at all. So, even as flu whipped through the country, British officials offered little help
and Indians accepted even less. Western medicine was largely reserved
for the rich colonials or those in the cities. But there was an organization
that tried to help and often they were the only ones
serving rural areas: the independence movement. In the rural villages, college-trained activists
deliver medicine via bicycle or horse. Much of it is indigenous folk medicine
that just managed symptoms, but given that every Western institute from Rockefeller to Pasteur in Paris
to Koch in Germany had failed to produce a cure, It was no worse treatment
than the ill received in the US or Britain. The message was clear. Articles in the Indian press denounced colonial neglect, saying British authorities cared little for Indians and in their hour of need, the only ones who stepped up were the revolutionaries. They had the grassroots support
they’d struggled so long to secure. And so, India took another step closer to revolution, its independence movement gaining legitimacy even as one of its most predominant leaders, Mahatma Gandhi was out of action. The virus nearly killed him. According to recent estimates,
between 14 and 20 million Indians died from the flu. The most from any single nation. And yet the flu killed on, affecting each country
in its own way. Japan called it “sumo disease” since the first outbreak
exploded after a public wrestling match. There, the wearing of face masks became so ingrained
that it remains a practice today. It possibly killed 4 million
on the island of Java alone. It raged through Russia and Mexico
both of which were in the flames of civil war. By 1919, it had penetrated
even the most isolated regions: the Wood River, Alaska. Coast guardsmen step on to the riverbank, calling out to the Yupik village. No one answers. They’re in one of the most remote places on earth. Here, it’s not unusual to meet people who still think
Alaska is part of the Russian Empire ruled by the Tsar. Now, there is no Russian Empire much less a Tsar. And though news of the revolution
hadn’t made it, the flu had. They’ve heard reports of devastation
at the indolent villages. The disease strikes
native populations especially hard. The guardsmen are here with a doctor
to offer medical aid and assess the impact. But the village seems deserted. The ensign hears something moving
in one of the earth houses, and opens the door to investigate. He slams it and backs away
calling for a rifle. He then smashes in a window
and fires into the house again and again and again. He only stops when everything inside no longer moves. Then they doused the village with kerosene
and burn it to the ground. For the rest of his life, he will never forget what he saw: three enormous sled dogs starving and feral, fighting over the bones of a dead family. As the guardsmen discovered in Alaska, Spanish flu proved to be especially deadly
to native people with isolated immune systems. It slewed its way across the Pacific, hopping from island to island
out of New Zealand. In Fiji, 5% of the population dead. In Tonga, 10%. In Vanuatu, it killed 90% of people
in some villages wiping out 20 unique languages. And then,
it reached Samoa. Pago Pago, American Samoa. Commander John Poyer, the naval governor
of American Samoa liked to follow radio reports on the wire. It gave him news from the war. From home. He could keep his finger on things. Suddenly, one item stuck out to him: Spanish flu in New Zealand. He’d been governor of American Samoa
for about four years and knew Western diseases posed special danger
to Pacific islanders. And with New Zealand having taken
neighboring Western Samoa from the Germans, there was probably ship traffic passing between Auckland and Western Samoa’s port of Apia. Poyer radioed his sister territory. Why yes, they said. There had been a ship from New Zealand. And yeah, there was
some local disease flaring up. Why? Poyer sent an order to the docks: “No matter who comes,
deny them the right to land”. “Dock them at the far end of the pier
and move anyone ill to navy quarantine vessels.” “Work with the villages to form shore patrols
and catch those who try to sneak in.” He radios a warning
to his counterpart in Western Samoa, and offers quarantine
and hospital ships if needed. The governor of Western Samoa, offended by the aid offer, hangs up. a mail ship arrives
from Western Samoa. A US Navy vessel intercepts it. They can’t land, the captain says. Nor will Samoa or any American mail ship in its port accept outside letters. They must return to Apia. Furious, the governor of Western Samoa
cuts radio contact entirely, freezing diplomatic relations. By then, people in Western Samoa
are beginning to die sitting up in their homes. Fields go follow as entire families
are unable to walk. There will be famine next year. A whole generation
of village elders gets snuffed out. 22% of Western Samoa
would die of Spanish flu including 1/3
of the male population. American Samoa continued
its quarantine until 1920 until the last reports
of Spanish flu subsided. It would be
the only place on earth that registered no flu deaths. The fever
was beginning to break. [Ending Music]

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