The largest, quickest, and most devastating pandemic in all of human history was the influenza epidemic whose first of three waves began in Kansas in March 1918, and recurred in ever widening and more mortal forms in the autumn and the winter. Yet, this epidemic is distinguished from others by a second reason, the historical amnesia - a virtual blackout of memory - that has greeted it in subsequent generations. Its historian summarizes: "Nothing else - no infection, no war, no famine - has ever killed so many in as short a period. And yet it has never inspired awe."
9. "I had a little bird..." Bolshevism and the 'Flu
Between 22 and 30 million people were killed in a year. Half a million of these were in the United States whose troop-ships carrying young men to the Western Front of Europe during World War I, in conditions that were floating test tubes of the virus, brought the 'flu to France, then Germany, England, and Russia, and from the European continent the virus was transmitted along the sea-lanes of European imperialism to Latin America, to West Africa, to India (where 12 million died), to China, Japan, and the Pacific islands. More were killed by the epidemic than were killed by the Civil War or World War I Which Robert Graves called "the Sausage Machine, because it was fed with men, churned out corpses, and remained firmly screwed in place."
The age specific mortality curve of the epidemic was shaped more like a 'W' than a 'U' which is to say that those in the strong middle years of life were as affected, and more so, than the very young or very old. This characteristic deeply worried the official macroparasitic institutions which relied on those in their middle years to produce, to reproduce, and to fight. To them, not so much life, as production and reproduction was the worry. Henry Cabot Lodge was concerned about the productivity of munitions plants. In March 1,000 workers at the Ford Motor Company fell sick. The number of rivets driven per day at the Philadelphia shipyards fell at a rate that alarmed the war producers. The equivalent of two combat divisions of the AEF, or the American Expeditionary Force ("Ass End First"), were incapacitated in France. 40% of U.S. Navy personnel were affected. 37 life insurance companies omitted or reduced their annual stock dividends. The macroparasites and the microparasite were thus in mortal competition for the bodies of the healthy ones in middle life, and that for another reason too. As an air-borne infection, "the rich died as readily as the poor."
War censorship and political repression of the Wobblies opposing the war impeded both epidemiological knowledge and the transmission of therapies. In the United States public health policies seemed directed at regulating all forms of human communication and by savage law enforcement. The girls in Brockton, Massachusetts, acknowledged the isolation as they ignored it, skipping rope to:
I had a little bird,
And its name was Enza
I opened the window
(Their's was a lizard talk in its way, for by the 1970s research in the epidemiology of 'flu concentrated on the migration of birds.)
500 were arrested in New York on "Spitless Sunday." Large gatherings were prohibited. Telephone booths were padlocked. Public water fountains were closed. In San Francisco face masks were required to be worn. Cash tellers were equipped with finger bowls. A municipal ordinance of Prescott, Arizona, adopted a suggestion from an obscure newspaper by the Fascist, Benito Mussolini, making it a crime to shake hands. The Army Surgeon General reported that "civilization could easily disappear from the earth."
The middle point of the 'W' grew and as a result the famous 'Lost Generation' of despairing American writers came into being, and yet with the exception of Katherine Anne Porter none wrote about the 'flu epidemic. Was this massive, social, denial? Was this male chauvinism? Was this a sequela of the disease's "profound systemic depression"? They are important, unanswered questions.
Katherine Anne Porter synthesized the times, the creation of the 'new man,' and the 'new woman.' As Prohibition loomed guys started sporting hip flasks, and the new woman took up the cigarette - alcohol and nicotine, traditional responses, since the 1790s, towards epidemics. The government-issue wristwatch became the emblem of the urban individual; it became essential to the urban-and-factory planning of the Twenties. The government drive for money (War Bonds) was the only occasion of permitted gathering, and that under the slogan "Give 'till it Hurts." Indeed, "Sacrifice" was the watchword for the soldier and the 'new' woman alike: give money, give your time, give your labor, give you life.
One accomplishment of the American search for an antibody to the 'flu in 1918 was the recognition, following the disastrous results of experimenting on prisoners of Deer Island, Boston Harbor, that human beings make for the least satisfactory of laboratory animals. The virologists discovered something else. Historical memory is not a matter of our minds, research, and intelligence alone. It exists in our blood. Thus it is of the 1918 epidemic. That epidemic, and all 'flu epidemics, leave "their footprints in our serum."
Woodrow Wilson spoke in favor of votes for women at the height of the epidemic, appearing to offer a deal: votes in exchange for the 'flu. His famous Fourteen Points with its right of self-determination to colonized nations was enunciated at the beginning of the epidemic. Towards its end he was in Paris redrawing the map of world imperialism, and when he fell to the aches and fever of influenza he refused to take his doctor's advice ("take it easy") and explained, "We are running a race with Bolshevisim and the world is on fire."
In Pale Horse, Pale Rider Katherine Anne Porter wrote, "No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything." Yes, time for proletarian revolution in Czarist Russia, time for the Arab revolt, time for insurrection in South Africa, time for the mobilization of the textile workers of Bombay, time for the revolt in Haiti led by Charlemagne Peralte, time for the Mexican revolution, time for the Irish 'troubles,' time for the Spartacist revolt in Berlin and the Red Flag in Budapest, time for the Portland General Strike and the great steel strike of Pittsburgh, time for the pan-African-ism of Garvey. Thus, health improves as a result of strikes, riots, rebellions, and revolution. The multinational, worldwide host upon which the macroparasite preyed through its vectors of the assembly lines of Detroit, the gold mines of south Africa, the sweat shops of Bombay, the plantations of Haiti, the shipyards of Belfast, the metallurgical shops of Kronstadt, the slums of cities all over had begun to develop their own "antibodies" - the international revolutionary offensive, thus walking the talk of the lizard.
Against them the macroparasite struck back with savage repression - invasions of Russia, the Amritsar massacre in Punjab, coordinated infantry-air attacks in Haiti and Tulsa alike, race riots in Chicago, the Ku Klux Klan in the White House, Fascism in Italy, and National Socialism to Germany.