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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 36  |  Issue : 5  |  Page : 189-190

Pale rider: the spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world

Formerly Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission13-Aug-2020
Date of Acceptance13-Aug-2020
Date of Web Publication02-Oct-2020

Correspondence Address:
R Srinivasa Murthy
553, 16th Cross, J.P.Nagar 6th Phase, Bangalore-560078, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_268_20

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How to cite this article:
Murthy R S. Pale rider: the spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2020;36, Suppl S1:189-90

How to cite this URL:
Murthy R S. Pale rider: the spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Oct 28];36, Suppl S1:189-90. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2020/36/5/189/297158

Author: Spinney L

Publisher: Penguin, London

Price: Rs. 16,582.17

Kindle Edition: Rs.324.33

Pages: 323


The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for humanity, nothing is “normal” anymore! In the last 100 years, there has not been any similar event. The common feeling among professionals, planners, press, politicians, and people is that “life will not be the same as we knew it, after the pandemic.” Understanding the likely impact of the pandemic and its consequences would be valuable to humanity in general and mental health professionals in particular. Against this current world-shaking event, it is natural to look for similar events in human history. In this, the 1918 flu is the closest event to understand a variety of aspects of the current pandemic. The book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, is one of the best books in this field.[1] That many people are looking at the 1918 flu can be seen by the number of articles in the lay press that have focused on the 1918 flu.[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7] Even now, a new book was published as latest as July 23, 2020.[8],[9]

Nevertheless, the book, under review, has 21 chapters with attractive chapter titles such as Like a Thief in the Night; The Doctor's Dilemma; The Wrath of God; Chalking Doors with Crosses; Good Samaritans; The Human Factor; The Green Shoots of Recovery; Alternate Histories; and Health Care for all and Melancholy Muse.

Between the first case recorded on March 4, 1918, and the last case sometime in March 1920, it killed 50–100 million people, or between 2.5% and 5% of the global population. In terms of a single event causing major loss of life, it surpassed the First World War (17 million dead) and the Second World War (60 million dead). India was specially affected and lost around 6% of its population, the greatest loss in absolute numbers of any country in the world (an estimate of 13–18 million). The book has a special focus on India,[1] presented through the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore, Munshi Premchand, and Nirala and its impact on the Independence struggle.

Mahatma Gandhi was affected by the gastric variety of flu. At Gandhi's ashram, several prominent members of the Independence Movement were laid low with flu. Gandhi was too feverish to speak or read; he couldn't shake a sense of doom: “All interest in living had ceased.” Interestingly, Gandhi's reaction was: This protracted and first long illness in my life thus afforded me a unique opportunity to examine my principles and to test them. Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood as a reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and observed that British were guilty of “the same kind of ignorance of the eternal laws which primitive people show when they hunt for some so-called witch to whom they ascribe the cause of their illness, while carrying the disease germs in their own blood.” Spinney observes that disease was a major preoccupation in the writing that emerged in the 1920s, where it dovetailed with ideas about the need to reform the caste system and throw off the yoke of British rule. Munshi Premchand became the self-styled “chronicler of village life” around 1918 when he was living in the United Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), where the Spanish flu claimed an estimated 2–3 million lives alone. Also living there at that time was the poet Nirala, who lost his wife and many other members of his family to the flu. He later recalled seeing the River Ganges “swollen with dead bodies.” This was the strangest time in my life. My family disappeared in the blink of an eye.

There are sections in the book describing the feelings of anxiety accompanying the acute phase of the disease, and reports of people killing themselves while delirious. Following recovery, some patients found themselves plunged into a lingering state of lassitude and despair. Norwegian epidemiologist Svenn-Erik Mamelund studied asylum records in his country from 1872 to 1929 and found that, every year, in which there was no pandemic of influenza, only a few cases were admitted of mental illness associated with flu. However, in each of the 6 years following the 1918 pandemic, the average number of such admissions was seven times higher than in those nonpandemic years (emphasis added). Mamelund speculates that the patients admitted in those 6 years were survivors of Spanish flu who were suffering from what today we would call “postviral or chronic fatigue syndrome.”

The book provides similar creative responses in a number of countries following the pandemic. The paragraph about controversies about the quarantine makes for contemporary reading: “Quarantine and other disease containment strategies place the interests of the collective over those of the individual. When the collective is very large, those strategies have to be imposed in a top-down fashion. But mandating a central authority to act in the interests of the collective potentially creates two kinds of problems. First, the collective may have competing priorities-the need to make money, or the need to raise an army-and deny or water-down the authority's powers of enforcement. Second, the rights of individuals risk getting trampled on, especially if the authority abuses the measures placed at its disposal.”

One of the quotes from the book can portend what we can expect in the coming years in the country. Spinney notes, “The 1918 pandemic accelerated the pace of change in the first half of the twentieth century, and helped shape our modern world. It influenced the course of the First World War and arguably, contributed to the Second. It pushed India closer to Independence, South Africa closer to Apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of Civil War. It ushered in universal healthcare and alternative medicine, our love of fresh air and our passion for sport, and it was probably responsible, at least in part, for the obsession of twentieth-century artists with all the myriad ways in which the human body can fail.”

The book made me realize that the current pandemic will bring about extensive changes. Against this expected “mental health tsunami,” there are three tasks for each one of us: firstly, to document the experiences of individuals, families, communities, and the government; secondly, to identify the social factors contributing to vulnerabilities and resilience, to guide corrective actions; and lastly, to utilize the opportunity of heightened awareness of societal-level issues, to work toward addressing the predisposing causes for higher mortality and morbidity such as inequalities, intolerances, inadequate health infrastructure, the weak welfare network to support the vulnerable, and decentralization of powers and plans to enhance community participation.

I recommend it as an essential reading during the current pandemic period.

  References Top

Spinney L. How the Spanish Flu of 1918 Changed India. New Delhi: Caravan; October, 2018.  Back to cited text no. 1
Acharjee S. Pandemics of the past|India Today Insight; 18 March, 2020.  Back to cited text no. 2
Chandra S, Kassens-Noor E. The evolution of pandemic influenza: Evidence from India, 1918-19. BMC Infect Dis 2014;14:510.  Back to cited text no. 3
Biswas S. Coronavirus: What India can Learn from the Deadly 1918 flu. BBC News; 18 March 2020.  Back to cited text no. 4
Sreevatsan A. Why 1918 matters in India's Corona War. Livemint; 13 March 2020.  Back to cited text no. 5
Chakrabarti A. 102 Years Before COVID-19, India Braved The Bombay Fever Pandemic that Killed over 10 Million, The Print; 12 March 2020.  Back to cited text no. 6
Chishti S. Spanish flu: Lessons from a Pandemic that Took 10 Million Lives in India, The Indian Express; 17 March 2020.  Back to cited text no. 7
Spinney L. How Will COVID Be Remembered? The Wired; 20 July 2020.  Back to cited text no. 8
Donoghue E. The Pull of the Stars. London: Little Brown; 2020.  Back to cited text no. 9


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