COVID-19, History and Scepticism

Disease stalks the land. Cases soar. Thousands die daily. Governments across the world, local and national, take the dramatic step of restricting access to or even closing bars, hotels, theatres, cinemas, schools and shops. The global economy spins into recession and billions of dollars are lost.

Such reporting will be familiar to newspaper readers in the twenty-first century. The COVID-19 crisis, caused by a highly infectious and deadly novel virus, to which populations across the world have no pre-existing immunity, has, at the time of writing, killed at least two million people. In June 2020, the World Bank gloomily projected that the pandemic would shrink advanced economies by seven percent.[1] Yet none of my opening paraphrased headlines come from newspapers of recent months, instead they are all taken from reporting which took place during or shortly after the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic.

In 1918, an influenza pandemic, colloquially known as Spanish Influenza or the Spanish Flu, swept military camps behind the front lines of the First World War. The origins of the pandemic are much debated, some arguing that it emerged in the tightly packed, unhygienic conditions of the military camps. Others have suggested it emerged from a variety of different locations across the world, before finding its way to the mass of troops of the Western Front. [2] What is not in dispute is that infected troops, from around the world, returned home, from those front lines and brought the Spanish Flu with them.

The pandemic of 1918–1919, which swept the world in three major waves, was highly infectious and highly deadly. Unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, which tends to kill the elderly and those with chronic pre-existing conditions, the Spanish Flu also killed children and infants in huge numbers. Ultimately, some estimates suggest that the death toll was ‘in the order of 50 million’.[3] Then, as now, a variety of severe restrictions were placed on individuals and businesses.

This was all reported in the press. For instance, The Age, a Melbourne based newspaper, carried an article in February 1919 with the headline: ‘Closing of Hotels: The Influenza restrictions, No Immediate Relaxation’.[4] Meanwhile, The Daily Times (Ohio) informed its readers, in July 1919, that the pandemic had killed 500,000 US citizens and had cost $4 billion to the US economy — today that figure, depending on how it is measured, would represent a cost to the economy of as much as $1.08 trillion.[5] Such was the grotesque impact of the pandemic, the US government and newspapers were keen to impress upon the public the importance of never allowing such a pandemic run rampant again.

In the late summer of 1919, after the pandemic had seemingly abated, the United States government published a messages to US citizens. In this missive, it stressed that, ‘There should be no repetition of the extensive suffering and distress which accompanies the last year’s pandemic.’ They advised that complacency was folly and that, though experts predicted that the pandemic had run its course, ‘Communities should make plans now for dealing with any recurrence of the epidemic.’ Further, they recognised that the disease had emerged, at least in some parts of the world, in a series of waves. Just because the disease had died out for the time being, it was no reason to imagine that it might not emerge again. Measures, monies and vigilance were the order of the day to nip any future outbreak in the bud.[6]

Given what we know about pandemics, it is remarkable how little experiences from the past have shaped the views of certain parts of the literati today. I refer, of course, to the so-called (and grandly self-labelled) “Lockdown sceptics”. Individuals such as Toby Young, Allison Pearson and Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Hartley-Brewer, for instance, took to her column in the Daily Telegraph to attack British workers who treated COVID-19 as anything but a ‘little sniffle’. She wrote, ‘Forget braving the First World War trenches, all the modern-day Briton has to do for his country is spend the day under the duvet drinking Lemsip at the first sign of a sniffle, to save passing on their ailment to their colleagues.’ Instead, readers learned, if they were feeling under the weather, they should take a leaf from their forbears and get back to work. After all, ‘How on earth could businesses cope if every member of staff with a headache and a runny nose called in sick each morning?’ What those members of the British public (at least those unwilling to jeopardize their own health and that of their families) lacked was the ‘courage and stoicism of days gone by.’ [7]

It transpires, however, that COVID-19 is not like the usual annual ‘flu’. Over the prior five years, influenza had led to annual death tolls of between 3,966 and 22,087 people.[8] Each year supplied, and will supply, an untold series of individual tragedies as a result of seasonal influenza, to be sure. However, these figures pale when compared to the COVID-19 pandemic which, by the time Hartley-Brewer was writing, had already claimed the lives of over 40,000 people in the UK alone.[9]

Similarly, Allison Pearson suggested that the COVID-19 crisis was being rather overblown. She beseeched the public to have a little perspective, writing on Twitter on 8 September: ‘Flu accounted for 14 times as many deaths as Covid in the last week of August. Yes, flu. Sense of Perspective Sought.’[10] Plainly, the perspective required was to accept that COVID-19 was little to worry about, it was like a standard outbreak of influenza. Yet, a month later, the Office of National Statistics included a bulletin which rather undermined Pearson’s sense of perspective: ‘Of all death occurrences between January and August 2020, there were 48,168 deaths due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) compared with 13,619 deaths due to pneumonia and 394 deaths due to influenza.’[11]

Of the ‘sceptics’, Toby Young is perhaps the most prolific, heading the Lockdown Sceptics website.[12] Like Pearson and Hartley-Brewer, Young is a self-proclaimed champion of freedom and opposed to the liberty-stripping stripping activities of governments, wildly flailing, as they are, to gain some semblance of control on a novel virus ripping through the population. Also, like the others, he fell foul of reality, when he argued, shortly before a major wave, that things would soon get back to normal and that it was only the fault of government that they had not. This claim he was forced to walk back on national television once it transpired that there was indeed a ‘second wave’.[13] His various claims have been exposed as nonsense so many times that rebuttals do not require repetition here.[14]

The central issue is that, among the*many* other failures one might note, all three were keen to assume in the late summer months, when the first wave of this viral was at a trough, there would be no new peak. A casual glance at the history of pandemics would have shown otherwise. From positions of ignorance of epidemiology and indeed the scientific (also the scholarly) process, they all assumed that they knew better than epidemiologists and front-line NHS staff. While they gathered clicks and subscriptions, on the back of sophism and pseudo-science, all of which sounded plausible to least some readers and listeners, the virus began to build. Each individual who,on the back of these claims: ceased wearing a mask; topped washing their hands; and, who did not take the issue seriously, has increased the damage of the wave we are currently enduring.

Even a casual examination of the Spanish Flu and its history reveals a similar pattern to what we have observed in the COVID-19 crisis. And this is not an epidemiological point, but as cultural one: there are always those, who from stupidity, ideology or a sense of self-promotion, who will argue with reality. The Lockdown sceptics spent months undermining public trust in science by claiming that, during the summer and Autumn, the peril had past. This was not so. As one newspaper informed its readers in 1919, ‘communities are learning that it is never safe to assume that the disease has been got rid of. It dies down, restrictions are removed, the public grows careless, and presently the epidemic is in full swing.’[15] The actions of the “lockdown sceptics” have been to catalyse this process in the twenty-first century.

[1] The World Bank, ‘The Global Economic Outlook During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Changed World’, 8 June 2020 < https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2020/06/08/the-global-economic-outlook-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-changed-world> [accessed 13 January 2021].

[2] Byerly, Carol R. “The U.S. military and the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919.” Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974) vol. 125 Suppl 3 (2010): 82–91.

[3] Johnson, Niall P. A. S. and Juergen Mueller. “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 “Spanish” Influenza Pandemic.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 76 no. 1, 2002, p. 105–115. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bhm.2002.0022.

[4] The Age (Melbourne), 22 February 1919, p. 13.

[5] The Daily Times (Ohio) 25 July 1919, p. 1.

[6] The Atlanta Constitution, 14 September 1919, p. 3.

[7] Daily Telegraph, Julia Hartley-Brewer, ‘We hardy Brits should be proud of soldiering on with a sniffle 2020’, 26 November 2020.

[8] Public Health England, ‘Surveillance of influenza and other respiratory viruses in the UK, Winter 2019 to 2020’, June 2020, <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/895233/Surveillance_Influenza_and_other_respiratory_viruses_in_the_UK_2019_to_2020_FINAL.pdf#page=54>

[9] Office of National Statistics, ‘Deaths due to coronavirus (COVID-19) compared with deaths from influenza and pneumonia, England and Wales: deaths occurring between 1 January and 31 August 2020’, 8 October 2020, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsduetocoronaviruscovid19comparedwithdeathsfrominfluenzaandpneumoniaenglandandwales/deathsoccurringbetween1januaryand31august2020.

[10] Twitter, Allison Pearson (@allisonpearson) 6:09 pm, 8 September 2020, https://twitter.com/allisonpearson/status/1303379859759075329.

[11] Office of National Statistics, ‘Deaths due to coronavirus (COVID-19) compared with deaths from influenza and pneumonia, England and Wales: deaths occurring between 1 January and 31 August 2020’, 8 October 2020, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsduetocoronaviruscovid19comparedwithdeathsfrominfluenzaandpneumoniaenglandandwales/deathsoccurringbetween1januaryand31august2020.

[12] https://lockdownsceptics.org/

[13] BBC, Newsnight, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pX-TLoZx5s

[14] Nafeez Ahmed, ‘Alt-Right Pseudoscience Lockdown Sceptics’, By-Line Times, 4 December 2020, https://bylinetimes.com/2020/12/04/alt-right-pseudoscience-part-1-lockdown-sceptics/

[15] The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), 14 January 1919, p. 4.

UK based academic historian. Lecturer