Bill Reith is a retired GP from Aberdeen
Published in 2019 as ‘The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris’, it is perhaps not surprising that the book mutated into ‘The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19’ earlier this year. The mutation came about towards the end of March when the author was recovering from what was probably Covid-19; he had developed a temperature and cough – but because of a lack of NHS testing kits, he was unable to have the diagnosis confirmed. And that is a particular irony given that one of the issues the book highlights is our lack of preparedness for Covid-19.
Written in a style you might expect of a first-rate investigative journalist, who also happens to be a medical historian, Honigsbaum has skilfully interwoven the multiple strands of ten pandemics that have raged over the past century. Some are familiar to us, such as Spanish Flu, AIDS and Ebola, others less so, such as the plague in Los Angeles in the 1920s and the great parrot fever pandemic in the 1930s. However, each has something important to tell us. Honigsbaum has succeeded in telling the human story as well as explaining the medical (and veterinary) science. He highlights the ways in which changes in human behaviour have influenced the pattern of spread of infectious disease – cultural and social factors as well as ecological ones. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the key features of the book is how little we seem to have learned over that hundred years. We were as unprepared for the Covid-19 pandemic as we were for those that preceded it.
One of the key features of the book is how little we seem to have learned over that hundred years.
Honigsbaum describes the courage and determination of individual epidemiologists as they track down the source of disease as well as the barriers they face from local, national and global authorities and institutions. He highlights the role that long held community beliefs and traditions have in spreading the disease as well as the disproportionate impact on deprived communities of the sometimes harsh and ill thought out measures to control spread. He details the enormous progress made by brilliant scientists as well as the sometimes bitter rivalry between different groups of scientists. After all, who wants to be the second person to describe a breakthrough? He reflects on the understandable moves to improve living standards resulting in urbanisation and globalisation as well as the negative and often unpredictable impact on the wider environment.
Scientists whose progress is sometimes hindered by their own strongly-held beliefs about the nature of disease – stuck in a mindset of following known models rather than thinking out of the box. Politicians dithering when it comes to making difficult decisions – often doing too little too late. A public losing trust in both because of lack of information and honesty about what is happening and why – often afraid and uncertain about their future. It’s all there – again and again.
Honigsbaum has been fastidious in his research (as well as frequent footnotes, there are nearly 40 pages of notes and references at the end of the book). Indeed, if I have a criticism of the book it is that at times there is a little too much detail. However, that is a minor detail in what is otherwise an informative and easily readable book on a topic of importance to us all.
The only thing that is certain is that there will be new plagues and new pandemics.
As Honigsbaum says of Covid-19: ‘Thousands of lives have already been lost, not due to our lack of knowledge – we had plenty of warning – but because of our collective failure, abetted by complacent politicians, to take these warnings sufficiently seriously and to prepare for the pandemic that virologists and other experts have told us was coming our way……. The only thing that is certain is that there will be new plagues and new pandemics. It is not a question of if, but when.’
This book may just help us to be better prepared in the future.
Mark Honigsbaum, The Pandemic Century: A history of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19. W H Allen, 2020, PB, 357pp, £9.99, 9780753558287