Churchill then geographically followed the disease’s path westwards in each of the subsequent stanzas until it reached Britain, in a mixture of teenage rhyming juvenilia (‘O'er miles of bleak Siberia's plains / Where Russian exiles toil in chains’) and occasional flashes of the kind of vivid linguistics (“vile, insatiate scourge,” “Whose loathsome hand and cruel sting / Whose poisonous breath and blighted wing”) that were to be heard again six decades later during Churchill’s wartime premiership.
In the penultimate stanza of the poem, the epidemic had weakened:
Its power to kill was o'er;
And with the favouring winds of Spring
(Blest is the time of which I sing)
It left our native shore.
Before COVID-19 leaves our native shores, is there anything that might be learned from Churchillian leadership about our best response to it?
Some leaders have already tried to derive inspiration from Churchill in the current crisis, not always successfully. The BBC reported that the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was “quoting Churchill” in his speech to the Italian people when he said, “This is our darkest hour, but we’ll get through.” In fact Churchill spoke about Britain’s’ “finest hour” in his great speech of 18 June 1940, whereas Darkest Hour was the name of the Gary Oldman movie about him.
Churchill saw a great deal of flu and flu-like epidemics in his life, and was Secretary of State for Munitions and later Minister for War during the Spanish Flu of 1917-19. Catharine Arnold, author of Pandemic 1918, tells us that during the first twenty-five weeks of that truly horrific pandemic, no fewer than twenty-five million people died of the disease, which eventually was to kill well over fifty million people and perhaps as many as a hundred million worldwide, many more than the cataclysmic world war that overlapped it chronologically.
The flu—which Allied “fake news” ascribed in their propaganda to being deliberately developed by German scientists, just as German propaganda blamed Allied scientists— became particularly virulent in those places where the war had already led to malnutrition. It is a remarkable statistic that of the 116,516 American military deaths in World War One, no fewer than 63,114 (54.2 percent) were due to disease (mainly Spanish Flu), against 53,402 (45.8 percent) which were due to battle.