Well, yes or I wouldn’t ask the question. Let’s start with the Russian flu, which ran from 1889 to 1892, and its after effects.
The Russian flu
Geographical names for pandemics have gone out of fashion, since they’re generally wrong and lead people to blame entire countries for things they suffered from themselves, but the Russian flu was at least first spotted in Russia and to date no one seems to have gotten around to renaming it. So, Russian flu it is.
That doesn’t make the name correct, though. The Russian flu might not have been a flu at all but a coronavirus. And just to confuse the issue a bit more, the flu was also called the grippe at the time. That becomes relevant in a few paragraphs.
Whatever we call it, the Russian flu seems to have been highly infectious. Half the population of St. Petersburg got it, and it (that’s the disease, not half the population of St. Petersburg) moved across Europe, arriving eventually in Britain. Not because it had been watching Downton Abby and wanted to tour the great houses. Diseases don’t have destinations or intentions or TV sets, and Britain wasn’t its final destination anyway, just a stopover. I give Britain special mention because it’s what I allegedly write about here, although the pandemic’s led me off in other, less predictable directions.
The Russian flu is now considered the first modern pandemic (no, we’re not going to stop and define that), spreading worldwide along the paths so helpfully laid out by train lines, roads, navigable rivers, and steamships, and demonstrating that it was spread by human contact and by the wonderful ways that humans could now travel.
The Black Death was green with envy.
In a nifty preview of what would happen with Covid, public health officials in the US watched the virus cross Europe and played it down. It was a particularly mild strain of flu, they said. And when it inevitably disembarked, without passport or visa, on American soil, they swore the first cases were either common colds or just a seasonal flu.
Nothing to worry about, folks. It’s all under control.
The New York Evening World wrote, “It is not deadly, not even necessarily dangerous. . . . But it will afford a grand opportunity for the dealers to work off their surplus of bandanas.”
Yeah, I’m having flashbacks to the beginning of the Covid pandemic myself.
This wasn’t a mild disease. Worldwide, an estimated 1 million people died. A survivor said, “I felt as if I had been beaten with clubs for about an hour and then plunged into a bath of ice. My teeth chattered like castanets, and I consider myself lucky now to have gotten off with a whole tongue.”
It also had serious after effects and some uncounted but substantial number of people had them. More than three months after having been ill, the English women’s rights campaigner Josephine Butler wrote, “I am so weak that if I read or write for half an hour I become so tired and faint that I have to lie down.”
If exhaustion wasn’t bad enough, some people had the added insult of insomnia.
A Victorian doctor, Morell Mackenzie, said the flu seemed to, “run up and down the nervous keyboard stirring up disorder and pain in different parts of the body with what almost seems malicious caprice.”
That sounds like he’s describing the flu itself, not the after effects, but the Lancet, which is a medical journal and can be assumed to know what it’s talking about, put that quote and the next one inside a discussion of the after effects.
Another doctor, Julius Althaus, wrote, “There are few disorders or diseases of the nervous system which are not liable to occur as consequences of grip”.
The collection of symptoms went by an assortment of names: neuralgia, neurasthenia, neuritis, nerve exhaustion, grippe catalepsy, post-grippal numbness, psychoses, prostration, inertia, anxiety, and paranoia. The range on offer backs up my theory that when you can’t cure a disease it helps to change its name from time to time.
We’d be on shaky ground if we tried to sort the after effects of the Russian flu from–well, everything else that might’ve been available, including psychosomatic problems, tight corsets, and zombies, but observers in the mid-1890s blamed it for everything from a high suicide rate to general malaise. According to the Lancet article, the image of England at the time was “of a nation of convalescents, too debilitated to work or return to daily routines.”
I would have assumed that the description applied only to the upper class, who could afford not to return to work or daily routines, but what happened in Tanzania (called Tanganyika at the time) shows that I’d be underestimating what post-viral syndromes can do to a person.
The 1918 flu
Let’s back up briefly.
The 1918 flu epidemic used to be called the Spanish flu and sometimes still is. It didn’t originate in Spain, it’s just that Spain put up the first Instagram post. But it was at least genuinely influenza.
How serious was it? Worldwide, at least 50 million people died. About half a billion people—that was a third of the world’s population–were infected. So no, this is not the pandemic you’d want to challenge to a wrestling match.
Like the Russian flu, its after effects were fierce. They included apathy, depression, tremors, restlessness, and sleeplessness.
A New Zealand book collecting people’s experiences includes references to “loss of muscular energy” and “nervous complications.” Along similar lines, a South African collection includes this: “We were leaden-footed for weeks, to the point where each step meant a determined effort. . . . It also was very difficult to remember any simple thing, even for five minutes.”
But they got off lightly compared to people in Tanzania, where the flu was followed by a wave of exhaustion so severe that in some parts of the country people couldn’t plant when the rains came and in others couldn’t harvest when the crops were ripe. The result was a two-year famine, called the famine of corms, named after a part of the banana plant that people ate in desperation.
One strand of post-epidemic symptoms was called encephalitis lethargica–EL for short–or sleepy sickness. It left people not fully asleep but not what you’d call awake either. They were aware of their surroundings but not functioning in anything like a normal way.
Worldwide, an estimated 500,000 people had EL. A third died, a third recovered, and in the final third the symptoms went on.
Unborn children were also affected. A 2009 study looked at people who, based on when they were born, could have been exposed to in the womb to the 1918 flu. Compared to people born either slightly before or slightly after them, they were 25% more likely to have heart disease after the age of 60. They were more likely to have diabetes. They were, on average, shorter. They had less education and their “economic productivity” was lower. I think that means they made less money. I can’t think how else anyone would measure it.
What does that mean for the Covid pandemic?
No one knows yet how many people have long Covid, which is of several names for Covid’s after effects. No one knows how many people will recover and how many will carry at least some of the effects with them through life.
No one has a clue what the effects will be on children born during or just after the pandemic, or if there’ll be any, and I’d be surprised if many people are worrying about that yet. They’re kind of busy with more immediate problems.
No one’s even agreed on a definition of long Covid.
It is known that people who have mild or even asymptomatic cases can get long Covid, and that children can.
It is, as one researcher put it, “One of the reasons I worry so much for people with long-Covid is the . . . uncharted aspect of it. . . . It’s one of the reasons why I do worry when I see people being laissez faire, saying ‘Well, if we’ve got [to] the stage where people aren’t dying, and aren’t filling up the intensive care units, do we need to care?’ And the answer is, I think, until we’ve got more data, we don’t know how much we need to care.
A recent study identified 203 symptoms in 10 organ systems. After seven months, many people in the study still hadn’t gotten back to their earlier levels of functioning. When the study was conducted, 45% had to work a reduced schedule and 22% weren’t able to work at all.
And in a peripherally related seam of worries, a study has called attention to the estimated 1.5 million children around the world who’ve lost a parent or a grandparent who was either raising them or lived with them. It’s an overlooked side effect of the pandemic.
We don’t need zombies, folks. This is scary enough.