Journal of the Plague Month


On the day that Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, my grandfather, a Boer War veteran who managed a pub on Liverpool’s dock road, disappeared for some hours from the bar. As my grandmother feared, he had gone to rejoin the colours. When asked if he’d been in the army before, he denied it, fearing that he’d be held back to train raw recruits. Though he tried to appear as raw as possible, he was called out from the first exercise in squad-bashing by a sergeant-major who had rumbled him.

“You’ve been in the Army before, son. And you didn’t leave it a private either. What was your rank?”

“Colour-sergeant, Sergeant-Major.”

“Well, you’re a colour-sergeant again from tomorrow morning. Be back at seven.”

So he reluctantly spent four wartime years training recruits for the trenches. But he had an appointment in Samarra, and just after the war ended, he died from the Spanish influenza that swept the world that year in two stages, spring and autumn 1918.

Did he catch it at the camp where he had been putting raw recruits through their paces? It’s very likely he did. Transit and training camps were among the places that soldiers passed the “Spanish flu” virus on to each other, both during the war and afterwards when they were returning home, many to places halfway across the world. The war’s end was one of the reasons why the epidemic spread so rapidly and so far after the Armistice.

It reached Australia in 1919, infecting an estimated 40 per cent of Australians and killing some 15,000 people. Not a small number in a country of five million, but Australia was nonetheless the country with the lowest death rate per thousand of population in the world. That was due in part to a strict but well-managed policy of quarantining both soldiers and those who had contact with them. States took over policy from the federal government, closed their borders to suspected carriers, and ordered those who had already crossed them into camps. Showing an early talent in making lemonade out of lemons, the Australians and the authorities turned quarantine into what became known as “the long picnic” with regular meals, exercise regimes, and poetry and writing competitions to pass the time.

Everywhere else was much grimmer. Estimates of worldwide deaths from the Spanish flu vary from 17.4 million to 100 million. It remains a topic of serious academic controversy. And because many areas of the world had little or no honest and effective record-keeping in 1919, there is unlikely ever to be settled agreement on the numbers.

That makes any comparison with the coronavirus epidemic—now declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation—very hard to draw. Thanks to the Johns Hopkins University tracking map of the spread of the coronavirus, we know more about the present than the past. Essentially one month after most of us became seriously aware of the virus, we have 121,564 worldwide cases, 4373 deaths and 66,239 recovered patients. Those figures are high but they don’t seem too alarming compared to Spanish Flu estimates (but anyone reading this will have later and higher figures). And today we have antibiotics, better medical techniques, and higher levels of good health that should generally guard us better against infection.

Yet most experts—notably including the science journalist Matt Ridley, whose previous scepticism about such threats as the SARS epidemic proved accurate—warn that the eventual numbers of infected and dead could be very high. Their reasons are that the virus is an unusually aggressive one; that it has a long incubation period and so is spread by people unaware they’re infected; that as the Spanish Flu had two stages, so there are three kinds of the coronavirus which an unlucky person might catch in succession; and that despite the last paragraph, our defences against it are few and weak.

What then might protect you against it? Well, there might be a vaccine soon, but it’s not here yet. Being generally in good health will make you more resistant to infection—one of the reasons why the Spanish flu killed so many young people was that it ravaged their immune systems. In the northern hemisphere the return of warm weather will help, since that heralds the end of the flu season generally. It also explains the relatively small number of cases in the southern hemisphere—Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes—which are enjoying summer. Mark Steyn was, as usual, quicker than your average journo to see that this was an argument in favour of global warming, which would bring us warmer weather the year round. And though it sounds like a debating point, it is in fact one example in a larger argument that global warming (whatever its origins) has benefits as well as drawbacks, so that policy should concentrate on adapting to its effects of both kinds as much as in trying, not very effectively, to retard them.

Until a vaccine is developed, the most effective response to the coronavirus seems to be that developed by the Australian state governments in 1919: socially isolating the infected and encouraging the non-infected to isolate themselves. That seems to be happening voluntarily in the northern hemisphere: restaurants, public transport and cinemas all report business down. And for many of those most threatened by the virus, namely older people vulnerable to annual flu threats, it may be happening involuntarily too: sadly, in our anonymous society, their lifestyles are already cases of social isolation.

We’ll know in the next few weeks, however, if a policy of self-quarantining can significantly retard the spread of the virus. Britain’s health authorities suggest that cases of infection should peak in about a fortnight. At the time of writing the UK official figures are 456 infected and eighty-three deaths. Will they rise by the time you read this to something like Italy’s 10,149 infected and 631 dead? (And what will Italy’s figures be then?) Or will they show a lower rate of increase? For the latter result would suggest that the people of the democratic world, especially its Anglosphere component, still have something of the spirit of social responsibility and voluntary collectivism that Australians demonstrated in 1919.

Or will the evidence, whatever it is, have little or no influence on what the public and the pundits both conclude? For one of the depressing aspects of this month has been the degree to which partisan ideology and politics have dictated many responses to the crisis—less among the general public whose main foolishness has been wrong-headed panics such as hoarding toilet paper for a virus that doesn’t cause diarrhoea than among the pundits. My favourite is the title of Ben Kelly’s article on the Reaction website: “The Coronavirus Crisis: The UK Should Delay Brexit”. It provokes immediate scepticism. But numerous commentators have been using the pandemic as an argument that Brexit and/or Trump—for progressive rhetorical purposes the two can be treated as the same thing—have been proved wrong on the value of European and international co-operation.

In fact, the Italian government complains that when they asked their European partners for supplies of medicines and equipment to deal with what is now a desperate emergency, they received little or nothing and had to turn to China. China did respond generously, but one need not be a cynic to doubt the Chinese Communist Party’s motives. It badly needs to recover some of the respectability it lost by its early censorship of the coronavirus outbreak and failure to warn the WHO in a timely way. And the WHO itself has been less than forceful in demanding more transparency from Beijing—not the best demonstration of international co-operation.

That was less than two months ago, but some pundits with short memories are praising the collective morality of the Chinese people for successful taming the pandemic. Such praise certainly seems to be owing to the Singaporean and Taiwanese authorities who summoned up the willingness of their people to volunteer sacrifice in the general interest. That was not what we saw on our television sets and laptops when we watched extraordinary scenes of the Chinese police brutally beating people and locking them in their homes to enforce their collective morality. Not quite the long picnic of 1919.

As for President Trump’s response to the crisis, he is certainly open to criticism for continuing his political rallies—but not for his willingness to protect Americans by banning flights from China. That’s his defence against the charge that he’s been slow in tackling the emergency. The fact-checkers got to work on this flimsy excuse with a will. Did he ban such flights? Well, er, yes. Early on? Okay, on February 2 from China, expanded to cover Iran on February 29. Did the Democrats criticise him for this? Some did, but not their presidential candidates. And did the restrictions save a lot of lives, as Trump claimed? Let me quote the full response on that:

experts say there isn’t enough data to make that determination. A study in the journal Science found the various travel limitations across the globe initially helped to slow the spread, but the number of cases worldwide rose anyway because the virus had already begun traveling undetected internationally.

That’s the kind of thing that gives nit-picking a bad name. And there are many more examples from the mainstream media. When we look back on this journal of the plague month, we may reflect that it has been one of the worst pandemics since records began. But the pandemic is as much one of partisan ideology as of any other virus.

It’s not a virus my grandfather would have been able to understand.

11 thoughts on “Journal of the Plague Month

  • Bush1958 says:

    You state “global warming (whatever its origins)”


  • rod.stuart says:

    Correlation is NOT causation.

  • pgang says:

    A well considered article, particularly given the relentless garbage in the media. My problem with the situation stems from the fact that this is not influenza, and therefore its type of attack on the immune system renders it much less dangerous, even given its aggression (it is a cold after all – almost impossible to avoid). Maybe I’m wrong about that but I haven’t read anything that suggests otherwise. A couple of years ago a healthy friend of mine contracted pneumonia from a cold, so it can happen, and it seems it is more likely to happen with this virus.
    But to my mind the media, and by extension governments, are going to have a lot to answer for in coming months after the damage bill comes in from what looks to be a completely irrational and confected panic. Roger’s points about politicing only reinforce that for me.
    Perhaps the public will finally turn its back on the MSM for good. That’s a big if. But the most striking thing to my mind is the untramelled descent of ‘official’ civilastion into irrationality and fear. It is unprecedented and is a major leap towards a breakdown of our moral fibre.

  • Peter Smith says:

    “At the time of writing the UK official figures are 456 infected and eighty-three deaths. ” And yes there will be many more. Expect widespread testing to result in an explosion of those infected. And the elderly and sick will succumb as they do each year to the flue and other maladies. But surely closing down large sections of the economy is a gross overreaction. We are apparently in the hands of medical experts who want to flatten the curve of those needing hospitalisation. But this means the whole thing will be dragged out and cause misery for many thrown out of work. Surely the better strategy is to concentrate on protecting the most vulnerable and to go onto a contained war footing in producing additional medical equipment, drugs and beds – managing spikes that way – and allowing everyone else and every business to get on with life.

  • pgang says:

    Peter, totally agree with you. Why are we incapable of the sort of measured response that would have been quite acceptable previously? I suggest that there is something sinister going on here that perhaps goes beyond our veiled human outlook.

  • ianl says:

    > ” ,,, the better strategy is to concentrate on protecting the most vulnerable and to go onto a contained war footing in producing additional medical equipment, drugs and beds – managing spikes that way” [Peter Smith, above]

    1) How to protect the most vulnerable ? Presumably here you mean older people, so lock them up in their houses for months as the UK is edging towards. That will certainly cause large spikes in their death rates

    2) Producing medical equipment etc ? With what capacities ? Import them from China ? With what finance, even if they would sell against their own need ?

    3) Even 1% of over-70’s needing tubation will drown our ICU capacities in less than a month

    4) Just admit, out loud, that older people are second-class citizens, beyond their use-by date, unproductive now, and a drag on tax expenditure. One has to die sometime, right ?

    Here, again, is how one dies from ARDS, so you grasp what you are really advocating:


    As noted previously, economists meddling in science and (in this case) medical engineering is destructive.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Don’t really understand your points here ianl. I don’t mean locking up older people. That is ridiculous – showing how governments are losing the plot. I mean protecting them as best we can them from those who might inadvertantly pass on the virus to them. I am such an older person and would refuse to be locked up. As for producing or sourcing medical equipment and drugs, all I am saying is that governments should make that a priority, as on a war footing. You are right it has its difficulties but I am confident something material can be done. What are the costs – and not only dollar costs – of closing down large sections of the economy? What are many people to do who live from pay cheque to pay cheque? The impact could be more injurous than the virus itself. FInally, I don’t accept that I am a second class citizen.

  • Bush1958 says:

    Rod Stuart:

    Every VEI4 or larger volcanic eruption since at least 1659 (the beginning of the Hadley Centre “HadCet” dataset has shown a measurable decrease in average anomalous global temperatures, due to their injection of SO2 aerosols into the atmosphere.

    In this instance, Correlation IS Causation.

  • lloveday says:

    On volcanic eruptions, I suggest those who have not heard of Mt Tambora may be surprised by reading up on it. 100% Correlation and causation.

    Just 200 years ago, in nearby Indonesia, Mt Tambora exploded with a fury unmatched in recorded times, cooling the entire world and causing crop failure in Europe, half a world away, in what was known as “the year without summer”

    Even more recently the better-known Mt Krakatau, also in Indonesia, erupted releasing just one quarter of the energy, but enough to be heard in Alice Spring and Perth, and it also cooled the earth, which took 5 years to return to normal.

  • Wyndham Dix says:

    “the untramelled descent of ‘official’ civilastion into irrationality and fear. It is unprecedented and is a major leap towards a breakdown of our moral fibre.”
    pgang, today’s highly-feminised Western civilisation suffers from what during WWII was known as “LMF”. We jump at our own shadows, witness the behaviour of politicians, bureaucrats, big business, the media, sporting officials, all woke, and the masses stripping shelves of supermarkets. No ANZAC day services this year. The Sydney Royal Easter Show cancelled. Restaurants likely to be forced to close indefinitely, Small social groups going into indefinite recess believing “the less mingling, the better”. Cricketers playing to empty stadia. Et al, The cure is worse than the disease. Who will be brave enough to pronounce an end to the threat? And who will take any notice? The herd has been stampeded.
    In times when there was moral fibre, a WWII RAAF recruiting newsreel encouraged men to enlist and ‘Come on, do a man’s job’. A printed poster encouraged the same thing:- https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/ARTV04283/
    Unimaginable in this day and age with a succession of female Defence Ministers urging recruitment of females to the exclusion of males, as my Bachelor of Aviation grandson has discovered after he topped his aptitude course. As goes the Helen Reddy song from the 1970s, “I am Woman, I am Invincible.” God forbid that Australia is invaded by an armed enemy determined to do us harm. We will fold like a tent.

  • Julie says:

    I am sorry this has happened too Wyndham I can only conclude that the apparent, and for all intents and purposes, 3:1 ratio of females to males in the adult Australian population has been the cause of all this. Any other explanation doesn’t bear thinking about.

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