The man who brings history to life

Dr Dean Allen examines the parallels between coronavirus and Spanish flu

An accomplished and entertaining public speaker, Dean Allen has presented his unique blend of story-telling and history at events throughout the world. His award-nominated book Empire, War and Cricket was published in 2015. Over the past decade he has taught at universities in South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland and England. Recently, Dr Allen joined a Pakistani audience through video link from Cape Town, South Africa, for a virtual seminar titled: What the Spanish Flu of 1918 Can Teach Us About Coronavirus. After the webinar, arranged by Dawood Global Foundation and the Buraq Centre online, The News on Sunday spoke to Dr Allen.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Tell us briefly about yourself?

Dr Dean Allen (DDA): Well, I am originally from Somerset in the West Country of England. I first arrived in South Africa in the mid-1990s when I fell in love with the country and the people. I had met a South African lady (called Van der Merwe!) in England, who brought me here! Our relationship didn’t last but my love affair with South Africa is still going strong. After leaving school I worked in a bank, but I knew that office work was not for me. So ‘Ms Van der Merwe’ persuaded me to go to university (at the age of 26) to study to become a sports teacher. I have a passion for sports and teaching so I resigned from my job and took the plunge. I went on to study at Stellenbosch University here in South Africa where I completed a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and then a PhD.

I went on to become a university lecturer in history and sociology. Over the past decade, I’ve travelled the world teaching at universities here in South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland and in England. In 2015, my book Empire, War and Cricket was published. It has gone on to sell over 10,000 copies here in South Africa alone.

TNS: What are lessons from previous pandemics, particularly, the 1918 Spanish Flu?

DDA: I believe that we can all learn lessons from history, especially at times like these when the world is facing a major challenge. I decided to research pandemics from the past in order to compare where we are now and how the world recovered from these incidents. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 killed as many as 100 million people around the globe and to date, remains the world’s worst natural disaster. In fact, the Spanish Flu infected one quarter of the world’s population. Despite these figures, and the fact that World War 1 was going on at the time, mankind recovered from this virus as we will recover from the current pandemic. With people wanting clear and useful information, the talk has proved incredibly popular.

TNS: As a historian, how would you compare the previous virus with coronavirus?

DDA: There are many similarities between the Spanish Flu and Covid-19. In fact, I have covered these comparisons in my current talk. Firstly, both are novel viruses. This means they are ‘new’ viruses with no immunity and no vaccines. While the Spanish Flu first appeared in the United States and Covid-19 in China, both viruses were spread around the world by travel; the Spanish Flu by soldiers during World War I. The current pandemic has been spread by tourists. While we don’t know yet how long the coronavirus will be with us, we do know that the Spanish Flu lasted for over two years before it was brought under control. Only through quarantine, self-isolation and travel restrictions did the 1918 pandemic eventually disappear. That’s what we should learn when dealing with today’s crisis. It is hard to make firm predictions right now although we should be aware of second and third wave infections similar to what happened in 1918.

However, we now have far greater knowledge and medical practices to cope with the current crisis than we did in 1918. We can also now share information via modern technology such as the internet.

TNS: Why do pandemics like this appear every 100 years?

DDA: There is some truth to that. Yes, we have seen pandemics appear throughout each century. However, there are no clear scientific facts to support the reasons behind this. We have to look at population size and social conditions from each century to make an informed comparison.

TNS: Recent studies have revealed that there are many strains of coronavirus. Can a derivative survive on its own without its parent’s strains?

DDA: The current coronavirus is said to have mutated into more than 30 different strains since its emergence in China. There is little evidence to suggest that these strains cannot survive independently. The most aggressive strains were found to be 270 times stronger than the weakest strains.

TNS: There is a notion that the strain in Pakistan is less dangerous? How do you see such claims?

Dr Allen: I would question that. We have seen that the virus is just as deadly in countries other than China. There have been a record number of deaths throughout Europe and in the United States, for example. I would advise the Pakistani population to respect the seriousness of the disease. There are no boundaries when it comes to pandemics.

TNS: People are reverting to home or herbal remedies for coronavirus. How do you view it?

DDA: Herbal or home remedies proved ineffective against the Spanish Flu in 1918; so we should assume that they will also not provide protection against the current coronavirus. People in Pakistan are requested to pay heed to the advice of their doctors and medical professionals.

TNS: You said that there can be a second wave of coronavirus soon. How does history, particularly medical history, support this claim?

DDA: Yes, if we look at what happened in 1918, there is evidence that there may indeed be a second or even third wave of the current pandemic. The key to avoiding this is social distancing. If the people of Pakistan can maintain quarantine conditions and safe practices such as hand-washing etc, then there is a possibility that this virus will start to die out before it can escalate. However, this will take several months of self-discipline and clear guidance from the authorities.

TNS: Will warm weather help control coronavirus?

DDA: The effect of temperature on the virus has certainly been highlighted by the false claims of Donald Trump. There is some evidence to suggest that the virus does spread effectively in cooler temperatures. This is due to the same circumstances we experience with the common flu. People living in close proximity; the virus spreading via indoor surfaces and transfer via coughing and sneezing etc. We are yet to see how the virus will respond in places like Spain and Italy which are entering their warmer months.

TNS: What disadvantages we have due to our changed lifestyles as compared to 1918?

DDA: We travel more today which puts us at risk of spreading this virus across large areas of the world. The tourism industry and business travel are more developed today with more people employed in these sectors. We should learn from 1918 that by restricting travel and large gatherings (such as at concerts, cinemas and restaurants for example) we can control the spread of the virus. There should also be a clear plan from governments that would have a strategy to deal with these outbreaks before they occur.

TNS: Why are death rates different in different countries?

DDA: The death rates in different countries are directly linked to their response to this crisis. For example, here in South Africa to date, there has been a relatively low death rate due to the strict and early lockdown of the population. In Great Britain, by contrast, the government was slow to react and subsequently they have experienced the highest daily death rate of any country in Europe. Nations should learn from one another and share good practices in dealing with this global pandemic.

TNS: Some environmentalists say the present pandemic is nature’s reaction to the excesses committed by mankind. Your comment?

DDA: There is an opinion that this is an opportunity for our planet to recover. Pollution, climate change and over population are all indications that humans are having a detrimental effect on our natural environment. Our natural resources are also diminishing. In 1918, mankind was also under strain following the Great War – a conflict that killed millions worldwide. This may have left populations vulnerable to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Today, scientists will no doubt look to the cause of the current pandemic but I am in no doubt that this has been a period of recovery and regeneration for the planet.

TNS: As a historian, what will you suggest to the economists?

DDA: That is the million-dollar question. I would suggest that economists look to history to identify how countries have recovered from situations similar to this current one. For example, the upturn after the 1929 Great Depression can show us the mechanisms required for economic recovery. Of course, we are now facing a global economic crisis as a result of this pandemic, but not in all sectors. Industries such as IT can actually prosper as a result and develop post Covid-19. History has also shown us that different countries recover at different rates depending on government investment programmes and other strategies.


The interviewer is Supplements Editor for The News and can be reached at: [email protected]

The man who brings history to life