Spinney, who was part of the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, calls the pandemic a “collective problem that has to be dealt with collectively”
By Reya Mehrotra
British science journalist Laura Spinney refuses that she was prophetic when she wrote the book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World in 2017 when we were a few years away from the pandemic. When the pandemic of this century struck, she donned her journalist hat to report extensively on Covid. In the process, she got infected with the virus and tested positive. She says she has been confined to her Paris home since most of 2020 and misses the freedom. In conversation with Reya Mehrotra, Spinney, who was part of the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, calls the pandemic a “collective problem that has to be dealt with collectively”. Edited excerpts:
Your book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World came out in 2017 when we were just a few years away from the pandemic. Had you imagined another pandemic breaking out soon?
I wrote my book to mark the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic because for me it was something we had not accorded enough space in history given the scale of the catastrophe. So it wasn’t in any way prophetic. Public health experts will tell you that pandemics happen and they are not that unusual. In fact, we have had 15 pandemics in the last 500 years and two so far in this century alone. At this point, we are not able enough to predict when and where a pandemic will be declared. So the timing and where it would happen, what virus would cause it could not have been predicted for this one too.
It is said every 100 years a pandemic strikes the world — is it a fact or a myth?
It is a sort of myth but every myth has a grain of truth. I think every pandemic in history has been caused by influenza as far as we know. Flu is a disease which lends itself to global spread. It is very mutable — the virus can change very easily so new strains and new subtypes develop to which everybody alive on the planet does not have immunity to. If you think about 100 years, that’s roughly the length of a human life and that’s roughly how long it takes for the global population to turn over such that when the new strain comes out, nobody is alive who has immunity to any component of that strain as whoever may have been exposed to it before has died. So there is some truth to it.
Most of your books are medical fiction, suspense and thrillers. What draws you to this genre?
The Spanish Flu was non-fiction. I love to write fiction. For me it’s the antidote to writing non-fiction, about facts —what actually happened. It is my release as I can set off with my imagination. I try to keep it separate but actually the two nourish each other. My second novel The Quick, which was published in 2007, is the story of a patient with Locked-in Syndrome (LIS) that is somebody who is conscious but completely paralysed. That was nourished by what I was learning in the field of neuroscience and things that I was reporting at that time. So I try to keep these two separate but in reality they tend to bleed into each other.
What genres attract you?
Literary fiction, crime fiction, biographies and certain kinds of history. I am not quite a big fan of science fiction which is interesting given that I write about science and fiction, but not science fiction as a genre. The interesting thing about pandemics is that they tend not to find their way into fiction. Literary novelists don’t really tend to treat pandemics for reasons I am not clear about. It has so much to do about storytelling I believe. But science fiction writers do treat pandemics in their work. Pandemics as a literary fictional device are something which science fiction writers are very familiar with and have been for decades. So, there’s a very interesting dynamic going on there.
What should we learn from this pandemic and how do we prepare for the next one?
We should ‘remember’. Remember the pandemics that we have lived through because we have this historic tendency to forget them since they have passed and that means we are trapped in a kind of a cycle of panicking complacency where we panic when one erupts because we forget. One can’t predict when the next pandemic will erupt, but prepare by making the health system more robust and putting in place protocols for when such an emergency comes about. We tend not to be very good at doing this, so that could be one thing we could take away from this pandemic, and we will this time because this pandemic is different. It is the first major pandemic to be digitally witnessed, first major pandemic which we have lived through since the internet and its access to everybody. Over the last 12 months you could watch inflation rates and mortality rates pretty much in real time because there was access to the internet. So this pandemic might buck the trend of historically forgetting the pandemics.
Do you think the lived experiences will help the future generation?
We know about the lived experiences in 1918 too because there were newspapers and people recorded their experiences but not in the same volume as now. The internet has completely transformed the volume of information and the speed with which information can be transmitted. Like, from the beginning we all agreed on a single name Covid-19 whereas in 1918 when the world was at war, the news was slower and people were more isolated in their communities in the world. It took longer for them to realise this was one disease affecting the whole world. It took a while to realise there were many local epidemics so that reflected in names. Many different names were given to that disease in different parts of the world, especially by the most powerful nations in the world that won the world war at that time and that’s where the politics comes in. It is always in someone’s interest to blame someone else for the pandemic. Pandemics have always gone hand in hand with xenophobia.
Do you plan to write about the coronavirus pandemic?
I have been writing about Covid all year and feel like I have done my pandemic book. A lot of books have come out already and I think it’s for somebody else to write the definitive story. There will be a new set of stories once the pandemic is over about the impact it had on us as a species. It’s important that these books exist along with the digital witnessing. As a writer, I am going to move on to other things. But as a journalist yes, I will write to understand the evolution of the pandemic and why we are still in it.
We are living in an era of misinformation being peddled digitally…
That’s a problem and the latest manifestation of it now is with various conspiracy theories about vaccines and it is doing damage, but the rate at which good information has flowed has its advantages. The virus was known all over the world within a few days, the vaccines have come out in a year — none of that could have happened without speedy and accurate information. Maybe in some time we will have filters to separate the two but at this time we have to take on both.
How do you think the pandemic will impact the world?
We are still quite in it. It has killed more than four million people as compared to the 1918 one when it killed 50-100 million people. Whatever happens in this pandemic it is not going to be as bad as that one, especially now that we have got the vaccines. The impact of the former one was much profound and the latter’s would be much less. In 1918 it accelerated the trend of socialised medicine. It was in discussion but nobody acted on it. But after this pandemic, universal healthcare system is being looked upon and the governments are realising healthcare as a population issue.