More on the Spanish Flu in the North

There’s a consensus among pandemic researchers that the movement of World War I soldiers was key to the travel of the Spanish flu. Geographers have plotted the disease’s progress by tracking soldiers’ point of disembarkation. Mark Humphries, for instance, researched the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force as they travelled across Canada to Vladivostok in Eastern Russia in 1918 to fight the Bolsheviks. Humphries’ book, The Last Plague, demonstrates how the virus was passed on as the soldiers moved form one spot to another.

The Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (wikipedia)

Remember that soldiers had been living in conditions of inadequate shelter and uncertain food supply as World War I dragged on. It’s not surprising that they were susceptible to the virus, which eventually killed 50 million people. Like COVID-19 so far, the Spanish flu led to more male than female deaths.

The flu was catastrophic for the Inuit of Labrador and Alaska. In addition, the Saami, one of the Indigenous populations of Norway (and other parts of Scandinavia), suffered disproportionately high mortality rates. According to Svenn-Erik Mamelund, this was caused by the Saamis’ lack of inherited and acquired immunity. Another Indigenous population in Scandinavia, the Kven, had similar rates to other Norwegians. Mamelund puts this down to the Kvens’ high degree of economic and cultural assimilation at the time. In comparison, the Saamis were not assimilated. Although it might have come at some cost, the Kvens had a higher standard of living and we know that the poor, as well as the aged, are more vulnerable to pandemics.

Saami children today (

They are also more susceptible to the lasting effects of pandemics. In his book, Black October, Howard Phillips describes a young South African boy in court for theft; the child was homeless, ate garbage, and did not know his age or proper name. The boy had survived the Spanish flu but, evidently, his family did not. The widespread psychological damage of the pandemic would have lasted for generations. David Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder wrote that there is some evidence that babies in utero during the pandemic had slower development and lower life chances in terms of their socio-economic status. Almond implies that stress was at the root of this. This is something that epi-geneticists will be interested in understanding further.

Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learned from the Spanish flu, for the Arctic, the Subarctic and beyond. Possibly the most significant lesson is that the impacts of pandemics are so great and so many, as we are now experiencing, that only governments can respond effectively–not the private sector, not volunteers, not charities.

Meanwhile it looks like Mark Humphries will have to change the name of his book The Last Plague

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Resources: Humphries, Mark Osborne. The last plague: Spanish influenza and the politics of public health in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2013; Scanlon, Joseph, Terry McMahon, and Coen Van Haastert. “Handling mass death by integrating the management of disasters and pandemics: lessons from the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Spanish Flu and other incidents.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 15, no. 2 (2007): 80-94; Almond, Douglas, and Bhashkar Mazumder. “The 1918 influenza pandemic and subsequent health outcomes: an analysis of SIPP data.” American Economic Review 95, no. 2 (2005): 258-262; Spanish Influenza – ‘Black October’: The Impact of the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 on South Africa. By Howard Phillips. Pretoria: The Government Printer, 1990; Mamelund, Svenn-Erik. “Spanish influenza mortality of ethnic minorities in Norway 1918–1919.” European Journal of Population/Revue européenne de Démographie 19, no. 1 (2003): 83-102.