Sarah Sands: Haunted by the ghost of pandemics past

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is modish to scare ourselves over historical cycles, so let's start early on the great flu pandemic of 1918. My favourite spine-chilling anecdote is of the four women who stayed up to play bridge. By the time they had finished their game, three were dead.

Flu stories are a good source of fireside conversation during this bleak period before the new year. My host in the ghostly old house in Norfolk where I am spending the week was struck down late on Christmas Day with stomach pains, a high temperature and sweats.

He has been laid low by what the president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Steve Field, calls, with a physician's glee, "a real congruence of villains". Field, who has been propelled into media stardom by a nation's sneezes, notes that the sickness bug norovirus has been joined by the common cold and a sly strain of flu.

It has arrived early and the GP surgeries are closed. Victims are gliding in ever greater numbers, infectious and unnursed, to their beds. It is like a scene from Dickens, or as we now call him, Doctor Who.

Each time I glance at the internet, the numbers have risen. Within the same day, one website was quoting 40 cases per 100,000, another 54, another between 69 and 80.

Spookily, the affected tend to be those of robust middle age, rather than the very young and the old. Just as it was during the 1918 great flu.

So you see why we are in a state of mild hysteria, in this dark Georgian house, with the wind whipping against the walls, a wreath on the door, and the moanings of our ailing host in the bedroom above us.

Now a youth has arrived, fleeing from another sick dwelling in Kent, where the patriarch spent two nights sleeping on the hall floor to avoid infecting the children.

There is a retired doctor in the house, but we do not need him to tell us to disinfect every surface. We are washing our hands like Lady Macbeth, and the moment anyone yawns we turn white and edge to the other side of the room.

The standard medical advice also tells us to avoid the new year sales and crowded Tube trains. What use is that in rural Norfolk? We are probably safest gathering in the local church, because germs are immediately frozen, although incidental pneumonia is likely. But what is the etiquette for house guests? Is it impolite to flee? Do we dare visit the host, wrapped as he is in his damp fever sheets?

Apart from the melodrama, there is little to recommend a flu outbreak now. We're off work anyway, so it is our own time we are wasting. There is little opportunity for martyrdom when the public stage is empty and your family knows you too well.

This is not friendly "man flu". The doctor's test – if there were a £10 note outside, would you have the strength to leave your bed to pick it up? – would leave streets strewn with money.

The question is: do you love someone enough to catch it? Do spouses, boy and girlfriends continue to share beds or must victims suffer in lonely, single bedrooms? Do we resist it, or resign ourselves to it? A year as turbulent and historically minded as this last might as well end with a flu pandemic.

We must take comfort where we can. Those of us hit by the economic downturn are going to be broke for years. But those feeling like death today should be fine in 48 hours.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British 'Reader's Digest'

Comments