This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Flu victims in an emergency hospital at Fort Riley, in Kansas, in 1918. Photograph: Associated Press

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

With a special Coronavirus edition, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Closed borders and ‘black weddings’: what the 1918 flu teaches us about coronavirus

Laura Spinney

Plagues – or, to use a more modern term, epidemics of infectious disease – pluck at our most primal fears. We have lived with them for at least 10,000 years, ever since our ancestors took up farming and built the first semi-permanent settlements. And they have always had the upper hand. They know us intimately, preying on our strengths – our sociability, our love of gossip – and turning them into weaknesses. They are always a step ahead, and once they are out, like the genie, we can’t get them back in. All we can do is limit the damage. So here we are again.

Because epidemics are frightening, it is hardly surprising that people reach for the worst possible historic comparison. The 1918 influenza pandemic, which has been distilled in the public imagination to a single black-and-white image of bedridden US soldiers, has been hauled out of mothballs to do duty as a template of what we might expect from Covid-19. But is that global human catastrophe, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people – the vast majority in the developing world – and which was largely forgotten for most of the last century, the right comparison to make? [continue reading]

Why equity for Māori must be prioritised during the Covid-19 response

Rhys Jones
The Spinoff

Covid-19 is about to hit Aotearoa in earnest. The New Zealand government’s response to date has generally been received positively, but we know the worst is yet to come. Our nation’s preparedness and ability to respond effectively will be sternly tested over the coming weeks and months. Nowhere will this be brought into sharper focus than in relation to Māori whānau and communities. Many Māori health professionals are extremely concerned about the likely disproportionate impacts on Māori, and about the lack of an effective strategy from the government and health sector to deal with these impacts.

History paints a grim picture with regard to the impact of previous pandemics on Māori, providing a clear warning of what could lie ahead if we don’t take appropriate action. The 1918 influenza pandemic resulted in a death rate for Māori of 4.2%, approximately seven times as high as the non-Māori death rate. In the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic, rates of hospitalisation and death were also much higher for Māori than for other ethnic groups. [continue reading]

How Paris Responded to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Eric Smoodin
Duke University Press Blog

On March 14th, 2020, the French government announced the closing of all restaurants, museums, theatres, and cinemas, a response to the novel coronavirus, possibly the worst global public health crisis since the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But as a comparison, what exactly was the government’s response just over 100 years ago to la grippe espagnole, which killed as many as a quarter of a million people in France? More to the point of my interests here, how did the flu affect the cinema in France, and especially in Paris?

Information can be difficult to come by, largely because the press in France covered the disease only very slowly, perhaps because the government insisted so as not to cause any alarm, or perhaps because journalists simply didn’t understand the severity of the outbreak. Françoise Bouron has provided the most exhaustive analysis of the general attitudes of the press at the time. While the flu seems to have come to France in April, 1918, most newspapers and journals at first avoided it altogether, then reported that France, unlike other European countries, seemed to have been spared, and then only began to cover the national outbreak in the late-summer and early-fall. [continue reading]

When it comes to national emergencies, Britain has a tradition of cold calculation

David Edgerton

What’s the best way to respond to a global health emergency? For countries like Italy, Spain, South Korea and Denmark, the answer is closing schools and public spaces to limit infection. Until recently, the UK government appeared to believe that such a cure could be worse than the disease itself. Boris Johnson’s advisers now seem less confident in their initial analysis, and have switched to a “suppression” rather than a “mitigation” strategy. The government has now urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, although it has been cautious – and has not gone as far as many other nations in closing down spaces where the disease could spread.

The British state has always been good at making shrewd utilitarian calculations. In two crucial moments during the 20th century, the government thought that it wasn’t worth attempting to protect the population in any serious way because the damage wrought by drastic policy interventions would be too great. Both Neville Chamberlain and Harold Macmillan’s governments made minimal preparations for anticipated disasters: bombing in the 1930s, and nuclear war in the 1950s. In both cases, the government aimed to do the minimum necessary to allay fears. [continue reading]

I’m a Historian of Epidemics and Quarantine. Now I’m Living That History on Lockdown in Italy

Eugenia Tognotti

As a scholar of historical epidemics — plague, cholera, Spanish flu — I have tried to imagine the reactions of men and women who lived the experience of devastating epidemics. But I never imagined that I would find myself living a little piece of history, isolated in my home in Sardinia as lockdown measures are extended throughout Italy.

The coronavirus is not, at the moment, comparable to those other epidemics I’ve studied, but it is spreading around the world, provoking anxiety, fear, panic, riots and a hunt for northern Italians who are alleged to have fled south before the latest government measures took hold. The harassment of travelers brought me back to the 1884 cholera epidemic, when local officials in some southern regions (Calabria) were forced to ask the interior minister not to let trains enter stations because they could not preserve public order. [continue reading]