Pale Rider is a fantastic account of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that swept the globe and killed between an estimated 50 to 100 million people.
Until recently, this pandemic has been forgotten by history. This is remarkable when you consider the death toll is higher than the First and Second World Wars combined!
Given the recent Coronavirus pandemic, Pale Rider is now a very relevant read. I’ve always been intrigued by the Spanish Flu pandemic, but I never got around to learning about it.
When Coronavirus started to become widespread, I decided to buy the book and it was a riveting, if depressing, read.
The loss of life was unimaginable to us today. That came after a brutal four-year war, makes it all the more tragic.
The book does a fantastic job weaving various stories together to give you a complete picture of what happened. The origins of the virus are explored and in the international efforts to stop it.
While there are numerous sections on the personal stories that arose during the crisis. These are easy to lose sight of during a crisis such as this, but it brings home the reality of life under a pandemic.
This is essential for everybody given the circumstances we have seen in recent times. I can’t recommend this book enough!
Pale Rider summary
Takeaway 1 No one knows where it all started
The incredible thing about the Spanish Flu is that no one knows where it originated. Multiple theories abound, but due to the lack of record-taking at the time, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint where it started.
A common misconception is that because it’s called the Spanish Flu, the virus originated in Spain. This is not the case. The name is because Spain was neutral in the First World War and did not censor its media.
Thus, unlike those countries involved in the war, the Spanish Press was free to report about the toll wreaked by the virus. This led to the belief that Spain was the worst-hit country, hence the name.
One theory is that the virus started in an army barracks in Kansas in the United States. The first recorded case of the Spanish Flu was recorded there on 4 March 1918.
Another theory is that it started in France, while another states that it had its origins in China and made its way over to the battlefronts in the war and was quickly transported around the globe as the soldiers headed home.
Due to the lack of records from the time, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know where the virus originated and who was patient zero.
Given the response to Coronavirus and how important it has been to track down cases, it highlights how vital records are in the fight against a deadly disease.
Takeaway 2 Not a lot was known about the flu in 1918
In our inter-connected world with endless amounts of information at our fingertips, it’s hard to believe that back in 1918, influenza was still unknown.
It was not known at the time what caused the wave of illness and death that spread around the globe. There were many hypotheses, but no one realised that the flu virus was the cause.
Due to the multiple waves that hit, many people believed the virus was in fact another disease.
Americans and Europeans thought the second wave was the arrival of the plague, similar to the ones that ravaged Europe during the middle ages.
While in hot countries, the disease was mistaken for dengue fever, which started with similar symptoms.
A lot of countries mistook the virus for Typhus, another disease that starts out with flu-like symptoms.
Before it was commonly thought that miasma, or bad air, was the cause of diseases. However, this had been displaced largely by 1918 with germ theory.
It wasn’t until 1933 that the flu virus was isolated. This proved that the flu was caused by a virus and not a bacterium. Adam Kucharski expands upon this in The Rules of Contagion, which highlights how little was understand about viruses until recently.
The lack of understanding regarding the flu at the time probably accounts for a large number of the deaths. This only shows how vital information is in the fight against an invisible enemy. Without it, you have little chance of defeating it.
Takeaway 3 The Spanish Flu changed the world
If the Spanish Flu had occurred any other time than after a major World War, it would be one of the most well-known events in modern history.
However, until recently, it has been forgotten in the annals of history. As much as the First World War changed the world, so did the after-effects of the Spanish Flu.
The death toll from the virus made many countries realise that the health of their population was important to the wellbeing of the country. After all, if your workforce isn’t fit to work then you will underperform economically.
Of course, the real benefits of better health are a happier and healthier population. People who are healthier have a better standard of living and are able to contribute to society more than those who are ill and destitute.
The virus struck home the vital message that you are only as strong as your weakest link. A healthy population is a prosperous one.
When the League of Nations was founded in the early 1920s, a health organisation was founded alongside it, similar to the World Health Organisation (WHO) today.
Another result of the virus was that many governments embraced the concept of socialised medicine. When healthcare is free for all, there is no barrier to health care for the poor, who are often most afflicted by ill-health.
It’s hard to say whether there would have been a move to create bodies such as the NHS if the Spanish Flu had not occurred.
For an event which has not had the attention it deserved in recent history, the Spanish Flu has had a lot of impacts upon the way we live today.
- “Between the first case recorded on 4 March 1918, and the last sometime in March 1920, it killed 50-100 million people, or between 2.5 and per cent of the global population a range that reflects the uncertainty that still surrounds it.”
- “In every conflict of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more lives were lost to disease than to battlefield injuries.”
- “The assumption is that as with HIV, which came from monkeys inhabiting African forests we unwittingly disturbed a pre-existing reservoir, allowing the virus to move unto humans.”
- “One 2007 study showed that public health measures such as banning mass gatherings and imposing the wearing of masks collectively cut the death toll in some American cities by up to 50 per cent (the US was much better at imposing such measures than Europe). The timing of the measures was critical, however. They had to be introduced early, and kept in place until after the danger had passed. If the were lifted too soon, the virus was presented with a fresh supply of immunologically naive hosts, and the city experienced a second peak of death.”
- “A report published in 2016 by the Commission on Creating a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future (GHRF) an independent, international group of experts convened by the US National Academy of Medicine estimated there to be a 20 per cent chance of four or more pandemics occurring over the next hundred years, and a high probability that at least one of them will be flu.”
Pale Rider review
This Pale Rider summary has taken a quick look at a book which details one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, the Spanish flu.
Given the Coronavirus, this book is more prescient than ever. What Pale rider shows is that although history may not repeat itself, it rhymes.
The stories described in this book have similarities with the experiences we all went through. A particularly striking part was the mention of an anti-mask league that was founded in America.
For all the progress that humanity has made since 1920, there are many things that remain the same!
Reading this book, as was glad the Spanish flu was not the virus we faced. The gory details of those that caught it and passed were horrifying.
As awful as the Coronavirus is, we can count ourselves lucky it’s not as virulent or deadly as the Spanish flu!
A terrifying part of the book is that it states the flu may have crossed from animals to humans by our encroachment into nature. Given that this mentioned in The Uninhabitable Earth as a possible consequence of climate change, this is a scary thought for the future!
Laura Spinney’s account of the flu and its effect across the world is fantastic. She paints a clear picture of how the flu made its way around the world and affected the countries it reached.
The irony of this book is that it was published before the Coronavirus pandemic and refers to the Spanish flu as a forgotten part of history.
While that may have been the case prior to 2020, it certainly isn’t anymore!
Who should read Pale Rider?
Pale Rider should be read by all of us, as its contents are highly relevant due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
This is one of the best accounts of the impact the flu had and it offers many parallels between back then and today.
Even if you’re not a fan of history books, living through the Coronavirus crisis will mean you’ll have a keen interest in this book!