Saturday, 9 May 2020

How does the Spanish Flu Compare with Covid19?

Recently, I saw a meme on Facebook berating people for not learning the lessons of history - and then proceeding to completely make up facts about the Spanish Flu, using a little graph lifted from the Wikipedia page. 
Feeling rather irate-historian-like that day, I started to point out inaccuracies in the comments. Then I remembered I had a thing I used to use in order to explain my opinions at length without anybody stopping me. So I dusted off the old blog (searched for a while for the lost login details), and here I am.

Before I tell you all about the Spanish flu, and all the fun that was, here are a few axioms for you:

Academic discourse, with its caveats, its quoting of sources and its attention to details is clearer and more accurate (whilst remaining imperfect) than almost any other means of communication we have. There is a reason why it can be verbose and finicky, and that is that its entire purpose is the finding out of truth. It is, however, not very engaging or vivid, for the same reasons.

Memes instead, are very vivid. They are created for impact. Their purpose is not uncovering the truth. Their purpose is to create a strong reaction in the reader (see - "vivid").

This blogpost will hopefully not be as verbose as an academic paper, and therefore lose some accuracy, I apologise for that. Nor will it be as vivid and shareable as a meme. But I shall try to keep it short.

So, enjoy my attempt at a half-way house!

1. The Spanish Flu: an almost meme-like summary

The Spanish flu was a strain of the flu of particular virulence which originated either on the front line in Europe (the WWI type, not the dancing NHS nurse type of front line), or in barracks in America. Either way, it thrived on war, because what could be better than getting lots of potential hosts together in barracks, so they can all be easily infected? Apart from, maybe, doing that then putting them in larger overcrowded spaces for weeks (ie, in boats bound for Europe) and then set them loose among other young men living in overcrowded spaces, who will also get on boats and go home at various points.
I mean, if a virus could day-dream about the perfect situation for world-domination, this would be it.
The pandemic killed at least 17 million people (almost certainly more) over 2 years, and the people who died in greatest numbers were in the 25 to 45 age range. So the ones who had already been dying in great number for four years. 

Quick facts check:

1. This was not the first time the flu had hit - it was a familiar disease. In fact, there were plenty of disbelieving headlines calling it "just influenza".

2. There were quarantines, but they were city-wide, not state-wide. The stopping of an entire country thing we're experiencing right now is completely new (as far as I can tell).

3. There was next to no economical impact, because the world had been at war for four years, food was already rationed, freedoms already curtailed and the world economies had already been overhauled to feed the war machine.

4. Quarantines worked well and were strictly followed because people were actually scared for their own lives. It's much easier to keep people at home when they believe they could actually die within a week, not matter how young and robust they are. It's harder to force them to do so for an ill-defined "greater good", especially if you fail to give any idea of how long they must do so.

5. The deadliest wave was indeed the second one, however, cities hit badly by the first wave had developed an immunity, and people did fare much better there.

6. The whole "people danced and hugged at the end of quarantine" thing, if true at all, is based on no data I could find. I personally find it very hard to believe (see, "scared" above, and "no country-wide lockdowns"), and would have been a good idea (see, "getting hit by the first wave" above). I mean, there was plenty of documented dancing in the streets to celebrate the end of the war, but that was later and, come on, give people a break! 

7. During the deadly second wave, something happened to the already virulent virus which made it shift from its usual victims (the frail and the elderly) to a form which was particularly catastrophic to people with healthy immune systems. The exact opposite of Covid19.

8. The Flu virus is not a Coronavirus. Comparing the H1N1's behaviour in 1918 to the new coronavirus in 2020 is academically fun, but in terms of predicting the behaviour of the second, it's about as useful as basing your expectations of how a leopard will react on your knowledge of elephants. 

9. I'm just going to repeat that last point. The coronavirus is not a flu virus.

10. It's not the same virus.

2: Actually Relevant Things to Consider about the Spanish Flu in Light of Covid19:

1. Did you know where the Spanish flu got its name? Not because Spain was hit first or hardest, but as it was one of the few countries in the world not at war, they reported the severity of the outbreak with relative accuracy. Unlike the rest of the world, who preferred patriotism and focus on the war effort to transparency. Many countries stumbled almost blindly into the pandemic because governments wouldn't collect or reveal the actual death rates. 

2. Scientists were ignored a lot. Governments argued that if they quarantined their troops and stopped the war effort, the other side would take advantage. And you could see their point, they were already sending these young men out to die anyway. Callous but logical.

3. Scientists didn't know very much. They could advise on quarantining measures, and they tried very hard to work on cures, but medical science as we know it was roughly a generation old, so not that entrenched. Even if governments had been more inclined to listen to scientists, it would have been crucial to choose the correct ones to listen to. For example, almost all the most preeminent scientists of the time thought influenza was caused by a bacteria, not a virus.

4. The reason I know who they should have listened to is not because I am a genius or the person who should have led the world in 1918 . It's because I was born long enough after the facts. And that's how pandemics work. 

5. It is a tough time for politicians who have to make decisions of enormous import with only probabilities to rely on. However, it is their job, and no-one has forced them to take it on, so there is no excuse for obfuscating, stringing people along, and generally treating us like unreliable teenagers.

In the spirit of not being an academic paper, this piece is not extensively cross-referenced. In the spirit of not being a meme, I will not sign it "Mahatma Gandhi" or "Native American Proverb" - but I will instead give you my main source, which is a very interesting read:

The Great Influenza cover art

Saturday, 19 January 2019

What I Read, 2018 edition, Part 1

Soooo, progress! 

This year was the second year I tracked my reading, and last year felt lacklustre, but turns out wanting to beat a number is really nice,because it gives me just the extra push to get to my book instead of mindlessly scrolling for an hour after babies are in bed and chores are done. Anyhow. I recommend having a running tally and a goal, even if it feels somewhat forced, they really work.

Jude wrote a book this year. 

My running tally is on my phone, I just write title/date started/date finished and then aim to write a few notes in my reading journal, but I don't always get to that last part.

In terms of goal, I was aiming for 52 aaaaaaaaand.....

*drum roll*

*more drum roll*

I finished 56! 

I also abandoned 4 and started 2019 with (only!) 7 books on the go. Another thing that changed is that I used the library a lot more, which is nice for my wallet, and another good motivator to get the book read.

But without further ado, here are the first 16 from 2018.

1. The Bible - by God (01/01/18 - 31/12/18) my own book

This was a challenge Simon and I set ourselves, reading through the whole Bible in a year, and we did it! It was a great experience, and I will talk about it some more in another post, but if anyone fancies giving it a shot, we used this reading plan by Meg at Held By His Pierced Hands, and it worked really well.

2. The Listening Life - Adam McHugh (05/01/18 - 13/01/18) audiobook

An interesting read, very motivational and practical on the why and how to listen better. I particularly liked the tip about naming intrusive voices playing in your brain whilst you try to listen to someone ("Hello there, Envy!"). 
One thing that amused me was that although the author is Presbyterian, he is slightly in denial about the fact the 99% of his sources are Catholic.

3. Danubia - Simon Winder (21/11/17 - 20/01/18) my own book

My, that was fun. Nothing better than learning lots about history you don't know much about, apart from reading lots about history you don't know much about in a book that is very well written and quite funny. In terms of style, it reads like if Bill Bryson was more history focused and loved art and music.
Go Habsburgs! Although I disagree with Winder about Karl. I like Karl.
Also, now I need to find a good book about the history of Poland.

4. Reasons to Believe - Scott Hahn (21/01/18 - 30/01/18) audiobook

As always with Scott Hahn, a great read, the premise of this one being trying to help us justify "the hope that is in you", starting from belief in God to Christ, to the Catholic Church. I liked his point about how being a theist was always considered more reasonable than not, until our age got weird and bad at reasoning.

5. Gargantua - Francois Rabelais (December 2017 - 02/02/18) my own book, unfortunately

I chose this one as part of my "reading the classics" endeavour, because the next one on the list was Pride and Prejudice, which I have read approximately 5638754 times, so I thought I'd throw in a French classic instead. Bad move.
Not funny (gross doesn't make me laugh, it just bores me) and pretty weak in terms of being a manifesto for humanist ideas, especially in light of what I was reading abut the Byzantine empire. All his pitting of the Ancient world against the Middle Ages seemed like the reaction of a dedicated follower of fashion to a new fad - the whole of his argument being that new (or old-new, in the case of the humanists) is necessarily better. Like the Enlightenment, Humanism is turning out to be, upon closer inspection, rather a self-glorifying movement than a useful critique of its time.

6. The Dry - Jane Harper (01/02/18 - 03/02/18) audiobook

A great page-turner. I took a little while getting used to the Australian accent (audiobook problems), but the author manages to make the book both page-turny (it's a word) and atmospheric. And also, something I love in murder mysteries, it did keep me guessing until the reveal!

7. Emil and the Detectives - Erich Kästner (08/02/18-11/02/18) library book

Officially, I was reading this so as to know whether I can hand this to my children when they grow up. Unofficially, I just loved it for its own sake. I could feel myself slipping back into the young reader I once was, and it was glorious.

8. The Happiness Project - Gretchen Rubin (08/02/18 - 11/02/18) Library book

Like all the other Rubins. A fun read, lots of fun facts, but very much felt like nothing new was added to her other works I read in terms of applicable insights. And she still uses the word "healthful".

9. How To talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk - Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich (15/03/18- 20/03/18) My own book (thanks Pascal and Armelle)

The beginning of a rabbit hole of parenting books. More on that soon.

10. Picnic at Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay (25/03/18 - 26/03/18) audiobook

I was having an Australian mystery phase, apparently. A very short but really well written book, blurring the lines between reality and fiction beautifully, but in a way that leaves you fascinated, rather than annoyed and manipulated. I hate to use the word "atmospheric" again, partly because it is not at all something I am drawn to normally, but there it was. And it was good.

11. Signs of Life - Scott Hahn (26/03/18 - 03/04/18) audiobook

Another solid Scott Hahn. He goes through and defends 40 different Catholic devotions. Very inspiring if you want to take up a new one, or simply be a little more mindful when you do the sign of the cross.

12. The Zero Waste Home - Bea Johnson (22/03/18 - 10/04/18) library book (she would be proud)

Lots and lots of ideas to reduce waste, plenty of them very feasible, and I have implemented a few. The book itself is well-organised and practical, but the author considers reducing waste her family's first priority, and I am just not on board with that. There was also a bit on the number of babies you should have which was plain immoral - apparently the zero waste community is hoping to eradicate themselves from the earth, and that doesn't gel with my understanding of human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Still, it's a hard book to top if you want practical ways to be a more mindful steward of resources.

13. Mindless Eating - Brian Wansink (09/04/18 - 12/04/18) audiobook

An interesting read and refreshingly non-accusatory. It is not demonising the food industry or a food group (or the people who eat it). It's not having a huge impact on my habits, but I can see how it could help someone else. And it IS very interesting.

14. Braving the Wilderness - Brené Brown (12/04/18 - 16/04/18) audiobook

Completely fascinating and very thought-provoking. I felt encouraged to listen to other people's stories, especially when I disagree with them - including her. Her imagery of dancing in the wilderness and of the tribe of misfits fell completely flat for me, I'm afraid, but it doesn't cancel the very great qualities of the book in terms of encouraging dialogue.

15. A Damsel in Distress - P. G Wodehouse (17/04/18 - 20/04/18) audiobook

I expected it to be funny, and yet I did not expect how completely delightful and hilarious it would turn out to be. Eat your heart out, Oscar Wilde. THIS is true comedy, but the author is clearly fond of his characters instead of sneering at them or pontificating. 

16. The Vanderbeekers of 141th Street - Karina Yan Glaser (20/04/18 - 22/04/18) audiobook

Another, erm, research project, you know, for my children. This is an excellent example of modern children literature done very well. Plus it involved a large family, a plot that was sweet without getting naff and if the parents were a touch too perfect, well, I didn't mind.

That's it for now. Tune in again for 

Part 2
Part 3

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Being Martha

I have struggled with this post for quite a long time. I keep trying to write it, and then I worry it will just sound like stealth bragging, conceit, or whining. But the urge to write it is not going away, so I will attempt to push through with it.


When I was a child, I was always incensed by the “unjust” parables. The 99 sheep versus the lost one, the prodigal son, and Martha and Mary (not a parable, I know, but go with me here). Especially Martha and Mary.

I think to some extent, every one struggles with how counter-intuitive these parables are, but over the years, I have come to realise that I am the lost sheep and the prodigal son, and thank God that God is not fair. But I am also Martha. Definitely Martha.

Martha resonates I think because whilst the others are actual parables, and therefore feel exaggerated, or at least exemplary, Martha is, Martha was, and Martha feels real. We have all been there. Demanding justice, asking for fairness, and “why can’t she help?”

And the thing is, Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to sit down. He says that Mary shall not be made to stand up. It is unfair.

I was prepared for many struggles when I became a mum, I read the blogs and the manifestos and the “you won’t sleep” and “your house will be a disaster” and the “you won’t be able to take a shower for days” and I was fully ready to give myself a break. What I didn’t expect was to be the sorted one. Being organised and having a clean house, that took me by surprise.

So I am Martha. And the thing they don’t tell you about Martha is the internal monologue which leads to “why can’t she help?”. The Evil One whispering in her ear “No-one has your back. You can’t let go of a single thing, because no-one has your back. The others are struggling more. And no matter how nice they are, they kind of resent you for being the sorted one. So no-one will have your back. You are all alone.”

That’s why, in my head, I'm often catching myself thinking: “why can’t she help? Why can’t I be the helped one for once?”

On better days, I know why she can't. Because Mary does struggle more, that is why she is at the feet of Christ. According to tradition, Mary had sinned heavily before she found herself clinging to Christ. There is a desperation in her clinging, like the mother of a sick child, grasping and gasping for air in the struggle. 
That’s not to say I think Martha is not clinging to Christ. She seems to need him in a different way. Martha is sorted, she knows what to do and she does it. Just like that. But she also believes. She goes and tells Him off for being late, because she knows had He been on time, Lazarus would have lived – her faith is strong, she just hasn’t quite let go of the world like her sister has. She is the practical one, the sorted one. And I can see the excesses in her tendency, I really, really can. Being worldly. Pride. I can see why Christ rebukes her.

But all the same, I kind of want to say “I hear you, sister. I’ll have your back”.

Will you have mine?