we’ll meet again

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Whilst you’re all aware of the fact that I’m no great fan of Bumble Boris I certainly don’t wish him any ill and genuinely hope he doesn’t suffer the same fate as that of his all-time favourite classical hero, Pericles, an aristocratic Athenian with an equally quixotic private life, who perished when Greece was overwhelmed by plague, killing over 100,000 people in Athens alone. And it has nothing to do with Johnson’s nominated ‘significant other’ being Dominic Raab.

As it transpires, two of the greatest civilisations of the classical world, Greek and Roman, were brought to their knees by foreign pathogens, not vastly different to that of Covid-19. Where goods go, germs follow and the developing ancient societies represented an early example of international globalisation, connecting such distant lands as Ethiopia, Egypt and Persia to Greece, Sparta and Rome. The key cities of Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome itself stood at the very intersection of the most vibrant, yet toxic, melting pot of pathogens: Africa and Asia. And sure enough, deadly viruses, parasites that inhabit the cells of a host in order to reproduce, soon came a calling.

In the third century, an ebola-like plague heralded in the toga-clad grim reaper and amid the ensuing carnage the Roman world collapsed into unprecedented anarchy, from which it would never truly recover. Athens suffered exactly the same fate and, as its enlightened society fell into a previously unseen term of lawlessness, if the disease didn’t get you then the rioters, looters and murders almost certainly would.

Coming more up-to-date, the coronavirus outbreak is more often likened to the Spanish flu pandemic, which seems particularly hard on ‘que viva Espana’ as that’s the last place it erupted! Earlier outbreaks had been reported on the Western Front, in the British Army’s massive transit camps in Etaples, northern France, although it’s widely accepted the original source was at Camp Funston in Kansas, where the first cases were recorded in March 1918. Consequently, the virus, incubated in vast barracks and field hospitals, was carried around the world by soldiers, sailors and military supply-chains, infecting an estimated 500 million people globally and killing over ten percent. That’s more than the number killed in the whole of the war, several times over.  

Spanish flu struck not only the very young and elderly but crossed any youthful divide. With the exception of pregnant women, it preferred men to women and hit hardest at the poor, malnourished and destitute. Having said that, notable survivors included King George V, the then prime minister, David Lloyd George, President Franklin D Roosevelt and Walt Disney. Its deathly prowess came from the virus’s ability to constantly mutate, flummoxing the host’s immune system and preventing it from building up any immunity. Remember, back in the day, there were no vaccines, antibiotics or antivirals to combat it with and today’s health measures – isolation, self-distancing, limiting movement and banning public gatherings – all owe their debt to Spanish flu.

Notwithstanding our rapid descent into fly-tipping, panic-buying, rule-flouting shelf-strippers, the other is our apparent pathological need to filter everything through the prism of world war. With the constant invocation of the Dunkirk spirit and the blitz mentality, fighting everything everywhere before we ultimately meet again some sunny day, it has been scientifically proven that we are in fact never more six feet away from the events of wartime Britain. On that note, I salute you one and all. Be safe, stay fit, keep healthy.