Emergency military hospital during influenza epidemic. Source: Wikipedia Emergency military hospital during influenza epidemic. Source: Wikipedia

Internationalism and collective action of the working people is the way to resolve pandemics argues John Westmoreland

On 26 October 1917 Lenin read out the Bolshevik Decree on Peace to the new workers’ government:

‘The workers’ and peasants’ government… calls upon all the belligerent peoples and their government to start immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.

By a just or democratic peace, for which the overwhelming majority of the working class and other working people of all the belligerent countries, exhausted, tormented and racked by the war are craving [we mean] an immediate peace without annexations – that is, without the seizure of foreign lands, without the forcible incorporation of foreign nations and without indemnities.’

Lenin’s proposal to end the slaughter and embrace international solidarity fell on deaf ears as far as the belligerent powers went. But neither they nor even Lenin were aware that had the Bolsheviks’ offer of peace been grasped, the flu pandemic of 1918, which was to kill as many as 50 million people across the globe, could have been contained more effectively.

The pandemic of 1918 is often referred to as the Spanish flu. But the virus did not originate in Spain. Spain was not a belligerent power in the 1914-18 war and therefore the papers were free to report on the spread of flu there. This made the crisis in Spain seem worse than it was.

Epidemiologists who have studied the 1918 pandemic still argue about where the H1N1 flu virus originated.

In late 1917 flu cases were simultaneously reported by military hospitals in France and Haskell County, Kansas, USA. Although it is impossible to find the first case of the H1N1 virus in 1918, both sites were in close proximity to pig and poultry farms from which the virus is likely to have mutated.

The pandemic erupted in three waves. The first wave from late 1917 to March 1918 saw the virus spread quickly across the globe. The spread has been carefully mapped by epidemiologists and the movement of troops was a major factor, especially across the USA.

Whereas the first wave of the pandemic claimed the very young (under 2 years) and the old (over 65), the second wave was much more lethal after a further mutation. The victims of the second wave died quickly. The victims were not the usual victims of the flu. They were young – between 20 and 40 years. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable.

As the second wave spread across military bases in the USA army doctors recorded that young men who were fit at roll call were often dead by nightfall. The symptoms of the dying included blood erupting from eyes and ears, violent coughing and ‘drowning in phlegm’, as well as discoloration. Victims often turned blue and black before death.

The explanation as to why young people were most affected by the second wave of the pandemic may have some relevance to the current debate about creating ‘herd immunity’. The rapid deaths of younger victims were often caused, ironically, by their stronger immunity system. The H1N1 virus had the effect of causing the body to generate too many white blood cells which shut down the immunity system giving the virus free reign. Pneumonia, for example, was the major secondary infection causing a quick death.

Arguments about how the virus mutated into this particularly deadly form are unresolved. However, if we were tasked with creating the perfect environment to encourage virus mutation, the trenches of the western front would be difficult to match.

The trenches were flooded much of the time. Blood and bodily remains from people and animals that had been blown to pieces, along with faeces and rotting food, formed the pathways and shelters for troops going to and returning from, the front.

There was every reason for both sides to call for the armistice before November. Some battle plans were scrapped after troop numbers collapsed. General Ludendorff perhaps spoke for the military elites on both sides when he declared:

‘The troops need to get used to weak battle strengths, and I do not know influenza.’

Those who became seriously ill were transported on troop trains back to civilian areas. The virus was carried by war to the four corners of the earth.

Where civilian life was particularly grim the death toll rose exponentially. For example, of the majority of the 17 million people who died from the flu in India, 13.8 million died in the British administered areas. Clearly using India as a resource for soldiers and food by a virtual military dictatorship took a disproportionate toll on the population.

As the authorities became increasingly alarmed about the spread of viral devastation some social-distancing was used. For example, in the USA universities and colleges were closed in affected areas. However, drives for war bonds, involving marching soldiers (not screened for infection) through major cities worked in the opposite direction.

And although the US government did take measures to ensure that only healthy males were sent to France, many soldiers boarded ships without knowing that they carried the virus. Literally thousands of US soldiers were buried at sea on the crossing to Brest.

The third wave happened, unsurprisingly, after the armistice and soldiers returned home. Where civilian populations had paid a particularly heavy price and were suffering malnourishment and disease already, the virus ran amok. German civilians were disastrously affected because of the British blockade and their own military rule. The Russian population had been similarly affected by tsarism.

When the Bolsheviks offered the world a fresh start based on peace in 1917, the capitalist governments had a different agenda. They wanted an imperial victory and an imperialist peace – where capital reigned supreme. And in London, Paris, and Washington they knew victory was in sight. That meant that when a disaster like the flu pandemic erupted there was no will to stop fighting and redirect resources from mass killing to mass caring.

The H1N1 virus had no national identity. Like the climate disaster facing humanity today and the looming flu pandemic we face it is international. It is possible that internationalism and collective action has far more to offer humanity than the struggle for national mastery and the cold calculations of the free market.

Lenin had a point.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.