The politically correct term is now “H1N1.” The original term, “swine flu”—which caught on spontaneously, in all the European languages at least—has been ruled politically incorrect. (I especially enjoyed the German version—so that I was referring to the flu consistently in private conversation several months ago as Die Schweinegrippe!)
This was among the major decisions reached by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international authorities. Indeed the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) combined forces on this last month, in urgent teleconferences. They pooled international expertise on political correctness in disease-naming. All progressive persons have now complied. It would be sad if millions of people died in an influenza pandemic; but how much worse if it were carrying a name that detracted from the dignity of pigs.
From what I can gather, as a civilian, it is anyway a mongrel virus, with genetic sequences suggestive of North American influenzas both swine and avian, plus the Eurasian swine, and the general human. In other words, “swine flu” was only approximately correct. Whereas, “H1N1” is generically vague, and thus nearly meaningless. The term applies to the subtype of the influenza virus A that has been the cause of every major flu pandemic since La Pessadilla of 1918-19, along with half of the flu infections that arrive each fall.
These latter incidentally kill quite a few people, mostly invisibly to the media. For there is nothing exciting about the fall flu season.
Diseases are generally boring. Deaths from a major earthquake, flood or typhoon, will get proportionally much more coverage; and deaths from human acts of violence far more, in proportion to their numbers. My formula is: the more we could have done something about it, the more interesting the event will seem.
That “Spanish flu” of 1918-19—which infected perhaps one-third of the world’s population, and killed up to one-fifth of those—focused chiefly on healthy young adults. Perhaps 100 million died. There is no way to establish an accurate number, but this was possibly more than the Black Death of the 14th century, in volume, if not proportion to previous population. More, by far, than died violently in the course of the Great War, and yet the sufferings in the trenches play a larger part in our historical memory. Wars seem more consequential, regardless of the casualty count. The fallout from a plague is subtler, having demographic consequences down the historical road. But wars create immediate changes on the ground—and memorably for the worse, or better.
This struck me when reading English mediaeval history. Perhaps one-third of the English were wiped out in the “Great Pestilence” of 1348-50, and many villages disappeared from the landscape. (In other parts of Europe, three-quarters or more of the people were lost, and whole regions became de-populated). The event hardly went unnoticed, but it is not writ so large in contemporary accounts. Dynastic changes take precedence in the chronicles. The fallout from the plague is nearly ignored: such demographic effects as the loss of all the clergy in many places, who had to expose themselves repeatedly in the course of delivering last rites; the sudden loss of cultural continuities that this entailed.
The Black Death was an act of nature, from which the recovery was equally natural. By the end of that 14th century, silent baby booms seem already to have replaced most of the missing people. Life went on, gaps and niches filled. It went on after every revisitation of the bubonic plague, in centuries thereafter. Our ancestors took these things in their stride.
Should we? Granting, of course, that we should do whatever is in our power to limit death and suffering—as human beings have always done, according to their lights—should we give the matter more or less weight than our ancestors did?
There was a tendency in the past, especially the Christian past, to look upon plagues, and every other unavoidable disaster, as acts of divine judgment. This is easy enough to understand, for in the best of times most of us deserve hanging, and the prospect of mortality has ever helped to concentrate the mind.
Today, with an unquestionably improved understanding of the material causes of infection, we are inclined to think of ourselves, when sick and likely to die, as pure victims of nature. We easily forget that on that account, by our very existence, we are pure beneficiaries of nature, and what is taken away can be no more than what was given. In the old Christian account, “each of us owes a death.”
It is a paradox, worth pondering, that with such “backward” attitudes, and suspicions of divine retribution, our ancestors may have done a better job of coping with disaster.