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Episode 2 - How the UK and the world reacted

Episode 2 of 3

Leading virologist Professor John Oxford charts the story of the 1918-19 flu pandemic which killed more than 220,000 people in the UK and over 50 million people worldwide.

As the coronavirus affects the whole world, leading virologist Professor John Oxford presents a three part series on the origin, spread and reaction to the Pandemic that devastated much of the planet just over 100 years ago.

The so-called Spanish flu of 1918/19 is estimated to have killed more than 50 million of the 500 million people it infected, including 228,000 in the UK. It was the planet's biggest single natural human catastrophe - a flu pandemic that killed more people than both world wars put together in a fraction of the time. And yet this huge moment in history remains largely under the radar.

Despite massive advances in health care and medical science, the parallels to today are stark. Professor John Oxford has warned of a similar kind of pandemic for years and has continually argued such a threat should be at the very heart of disaster planning for all governments.

In three programmes, he charts the story of how the 1918/19 flu pandemic affected the UK and the world.

In Episode 2, he looks at how communities and the different authorities in the UK and around the world reacted to the arrival of this killer disease.

In Britain, towns and cities which acted quickly in shutting schools, cinemas and so on, managed to prevent the worst. This was a time before the NHS, so everything was dealt with on a very local level. In Manchester, the medical officer Dr James Niven (brought to life here through reports he wrote at the time) was praised for his work in protecting the city from the worst of the first wave. But other parts of the UK were much slower and there were often rebellious outbursts from cinema owners and others determined to keep open, despite the obvious threats.

There were no mass quarantines, social distancing practices or lockdowns in 1918/19. Factory work continued, but half of workers were off with symptoms and many would never return. in some places, people were advised not to touch, kiss or shake hands, to keep distances and to wash hands regularly, while in New York a strict ban on spitting in the street was introduced.

There was no mass media in 1918 but it didn't stop the spread of mis-information around quack cures and how you could prevent yourself from contracting the illness - not unlike some of the unreliable advice being pushed over the internet today around Covid-19.

Despite the death rate and risks, people still joined in huge crowds on the streets across Britain and Ireland to celebrate the Armistice in November 1918. Inevitably more were infected as a result, in what became the second wave.

Basic nursing, like today, was key to whether or not people survived. In some places, St John's Ambulance personnel were brought in. In other places, mirroring today, older and retired medical staff joined in the care effort.

Some doctors had huge catchment areas and couldn't get around all their patients. This was made worse by a shortage of doctors. Many were still on the Western Front and doctors and nurses treating the sick in makeshift hospitals succumbed to the virus and died themselves.

We hear how very few parts of the world were unaffected in some way. The population on the tiny Island of Western Samoa was almost completely wiped out due to poor decisions by the New Zealand government which only recently apologised to the people of the island. Meanwhile, American Samoa was the only place in the world to completely escape after the US General there implemented the very strictest of quarantine measures.

Episode 3 will examine the long term impact on people, communities and on general health.

Produced by Ashley Byrne and Iain Mackness
A Made in Manchester production for BBC Radio 4

Available now

28 minutes