Commemorating Australia’s most deadly disaster?

Australia is gearing up for its last hurrah of World War One commemoration with a fair amount of emphasis on how ‘we’ won the war with the decisive breakthroughs in the lead up to November 11.

The Canadians and the Brits think the same, as the blog has remarked before, but there’s lots of credit to go around and at least News Corp won’t be detracting from our glory by echoing Keith Murdoch’s condemnation of Monash.

In Australia this month we have had the first performance of a new work by many Australian composers commemorating the fallen and a field of poppies which marks every Australian killed in the war.

The blog will be commemorating, on November 2, the death of another Gallipoli veteran, Alan Whittaker, at the unveiling of a plaque on the site where he was shot by police during the 1928 dock strike.

But what commemoration will there be of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and succeeding years as it spread around the world? It wasn’t actually Spanish in origin but was called so for reasons to do with poor communications infrastructure; hit Australia after the first soldiers were repatriated; and has been the subject of a variety of theories about where it came from. These range from the WW1 trenches; Shanxi province in China; and Kansas but no-one is quite sure.

We also know a bit about the virus after scientists studied some Norwegian victims found a few years ago in a mass grave. It has, however, probably featured more in novels than history – in Australia’s case Sumner Lock Elliot’s Careful He Might Hear You and, more recently, Garry Disher’s Her.

Estimates for how many people who died from the epidemic vary widely but the most conservative is 50 million (more than died in WW1) and less conservative estimates suggest the deaths were around 100 million – greater than in WW2 and possibly more than both wars combined.

That makes the flu more deadly than Hitler, Mao and Stalin combined. We – other than some unreconstructed Stalinists or absent minded former Maoists like Keith Windschuttle – remember this murderous trio because the deaths were intentional or inevitable outcomes of deadly policies.

It also raises interesting questions about our memories of intentional versus ‘natural’ disasters although the post-war pandemic does get some mention in media and other discourse whenever another worldwide flu epidemic seems imminent such as the so-called ‘Aussie flu’ written about in the UK Sun in March 2018 and spread (the story not the flu) through in the following manner: “A KILLER flu pandemic could be poised to sweep the globe “tomorrow,” killing as many as 33 million people in its first 200 days. A catastrophic shift in the flu virus could wipe out 300 million people, a leading flu expert has warned.

“The warning comes as vicious outbreaks sweep across the United States and Britain during the northern hemisphere’s winter. One of these unusually deadly strains first emerged in Australia last year, and has since been dubbed ‘Aussie Flu’. Officially designated H3N2, this variant has proven resistant to the latest flu vaccine and has become the most common circulating.”

The ‘Asian flu’ epidemic of 1957 was deadly and there have been many scares around avian flu in the decades since. But so far we have probably more print, social and other media warning of new pandemics than we have had memories of 1918 onwards.

Which leads us to why the 1918 epidemic was called “Spanish’ – and what its naming says about media then and now. Apparently the then Spanish Inspector General of Health, Martin Salazar, according to The Economist (29 September 2018), thought it was nowhere to be found elsewhere in Europe.

The news about its presence elsewhere simply hadn’t reached Madrid. Today our media, like The Sun, desperate to get more clicks, are full of pandemics even before they come upon us. The coverage – like that of much political coverage – is full of the words could, may, anticipated rather than had and did.

Let’s just hope they get their pandemic predictions as wrong as they do their political ones.