People stand next to the wreckages of the Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on 17 July 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Returning the gaze: everyone’s a war reporter in an always-connected world

The internet brings war and conflict into homes around the world more immediately than ever before, but with the torrent of data, images and videos comes confusion and propaganda. It demands a new kind of war reporting – one which can make sense of digital evidence, and use the decentralised web as a tool for undermining the enforced narratives of the powerful.

It’s taken 54 days for the first findings from the investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur to be released. The preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board features several key points: “high-energy objects penetrated the aircraft from outside”; the plane broke up in mid-air; the pilots in the cockpit were talking normally until the plane was hit, indicating they were taken by surprise; the other black box, which recorded telemetric data, also showed normal data until the flight was suddenly hit.

This is all consistent with the Ukrainian government’s belief that pro-Russian separatists shot MH17 down with a Soviet-era Buk ground-to-air missile launcher, and it contradicts the Russian government’s insinuation that a Ukrainian figher jet was detected “in close proximity” to the plane just before it crashed. It’s also consistent with the work of users of a website called bellingcat, who have been cataloguing and analysing photographs of the MH17 crash site for almost every one of those 54 days. The consensus among them is that MH17 was hit by a Buk launcher with the missile exploding on the front port side of the plane, and the shrapnel causing extensive structural damage and near-instant decompression.

Anyone who disagrees with this assessment is welcome to try and debunk it – the possibility of being wrong is a key part of how bellingcat works. It is, in the words of founder Eliot Higgins – better know by his pen name Brown Moses – an “open source investigation”.

A typical verification thread on bellingcat’s Checkdesk site, with users discussing evidence of damage to the nose and cockpit of MH17.

For those who pay attention to the current conflicts in the Middle East, Brown Moses is likely a familiar name. Working from a laptop in his living room in Leicester, he has produced some of the most important journalism on the Syrian Civil War, and become a lodestar for an emerging kind of online citizen war reporting. His first big scoop came after the chemical gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2012, where he used video footage posted online to build a case that the Assad regime was responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,729 people. He cross-referenced the shapes of the canisters which had held the gas with those seen in earlier YouTube videos showing other attacks on rebel positions by regime forces – it was the kind of detail only he, having spent hours obsessively gathering such videos, would recognise.

He has no background in weapons or war – he used to work in finance – but he does have a fastidious, obsessive thoroughness about his work that has led New York Times war correspondent C J Chivers to call him “an indisputable resource”. Human Rights Watch cites his work as “among the best out there”. With the launch of bellingcat Higgins is turning his hobby into a profession, successfully raising more than £50,000 on Kickstarter to fund its launch in August.

“It’s my attempt to solve a problem I’ve seen quite repeatedly in the last couple of years,” he told me. “I’m in an unusual position because I’m outside the normal circles of journalists and NGOs and activists, and they all come to me with these different ideas, and I find these great projects and tools and techniques that have been developed, but they’re just not getting them out there. They’d really work well together, but they don’t know they exist. There might be something an NGO is working on that a tech company could help with, but they’d never communicate with each other because they’re not in that circle. So what I’m trying to do is bring that stuff together in one site.”

In his work, Higgins uses a variety of technological tools to discover and assess evidence. The bellingcat homepage is a rolling almanac of global conflict, where “citizen investigative journalists” collect and post information as it arrives. Social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, mapping software like Google Maps, collaborative tools like chatroom/archive Checkdesk – these are all useful tools in sorting fact from fiction.

“That’s quite important because there are so many reports of things being moved from the site and messed around with. It’s useful to have these photographs recorded somewhere just in case there are discrepancies”, he says. “If we have these discussions on Twitter, in a couple of weeks’ time it’s impossible to find that original discussion, so having a place where it’s recorded and you can see the process of verification is useful. Also, I recognise there are a lot of people out there who aren’t experts, but keen on a subject and who can provide some good, useful contributions to investigations. I want to give those people somewhere they can go to and read about the tools and techniques they can use.”

The Buk launcher which is suspected to have been used to shoot down MH17 was photographed and recorded at different times on the day of the crash by local residents - Higgins reconstructed its movements, creating this map, showing it was within range of the plane at the necessary time.

It feels like there’s a paradox in our understanding of conflict, in the internet era: we’re seeing more of it than ever before, but the more we see, the less we understand. This is about more than Islamic State jihadis tweeting about Robin Williams one day and sharing videos of executions on YouTube the next – it’s about the idea of narrative in conflict, and our understanding of blame, and justice. We are bombarded with primary sources from war zones, but the traditional means of making sense of that information – things like war reporting by media organisation, or investigations by international bodies - are too slow, or missing altogether. It can feel like watching a documentary without a narrator. We know that what we see is meant to mean something, but what?

The crash of MH17 claimed 296 lives, and their fate was a miserable illustration of this. For more than 24 hours a grey train sat idling in the station of the small eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, waiting for permission from someone – it wasn’t clear who – to begin the journey of transporting the victims’ remains to Kharkiv, in government-controlled territory. We, elsewhere, could see the train. Wire agencies carried pictures of it, and those correspondents who were allowed near it noted that it was effectively unguarded. Nearby, the crash site was left open to journalists and rubberneckers to interfere with wreckage and the personal belongings of passengers alike – it was five days before the Dutch investigation team was allowed on site. The chaos of war and the breakdown of judicial authority was made immensely obvious, and it was heartbreaking.

It’s often said that the privilege of living in an always-connected world is that it has lead to the decentralisation of power. We’re no longer beholden to newspapers for news, record companies for music, Hollywood for movies, physical strength for ability, or governments for truth, and in its simplest form that’s a win for everyone who hates feeling like they’re being lied to by someone who knows more than them. Yet it’s damaging, too, to assume that all our new information sources are inherently better or worse than what came before just because they’re new – what we need, more than anything in this situation, is a decentralised way of dealing with a decentralised media environment.

With the crash of MH17, there was a surfeit of photos, videos and social media chatter directly from or about the crash, but very little in the way of clarity, little in the way of truth. What the conflicts of the current era show us is that developing new ways to handle the data we experience is as important as access to it.

“With MH17, the first photographs were taken two or three weeks ago, before the inspectors could get there,” says Higgins. “We’re documenting what’s there, and we can spot things which may have changed, which wouldn’t be obvious if you were an inspector arriving a few weeks later. For example, we’ve got five or six photographs of the missile launcher on the trailer, and we were able to find exactly where those were taken and what time they were taken and show that it travelled through 75km of rebel-held territory to the launch location, and then another 75km out towards the border, and that’s not something people on the ground could maybe piece together. 

“[And] once we’ve established that, journalists on the ground could then follow that up. I think newspapers and news organisations need to be aware that there’s a lot of value in having this kind of intelligence work done for people on the ground, because then they can then be directed to more worthwhile stories.”
 

***
 

“She was kind of obsessed with a fan. It was initially on the ceiling, and she moved it, she moved it to the left, to the right. We didn’t understand why she was so obsessed with this fan. Until she recalled, when we did the walkthrough reconstruction, it was on the blades of the fan that she found human flesh.”

Israeli architect Eyal Weizman is showing me a video of a woman trying to remember the deaths of her family. She’s directing objects within a house – her home – in some off-the-shelf architectural 3D rendering software, the same software used to mock up the posters that hide empty construction pits from the sidewalk in cities around the world with images of laughing couples standing around island units in white marble kitchens. The aesthetic in this instance, however, is decidedly less upwardly-mobile – dirt floors, clay bricks and cheap furniture. There’s a fridge in the living room.

She lived with her family in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, when the US drone attack took place in October 2010. Her husband and two-year-old son, and three other people, are now dead, and the building no longer exists. The trauma of the event has left her memory incomplete, and her ability to act as a witness has been compromised.

When the render is complete she “enters” it virtually, and her spatial memories revive other, hidden ones. The BBC’s Sherlock uses a stylised “memory palace” as a gimmick to explain Holmes’ exceptional powers of recall, but the idea has its roots in antiquity – classical orators could remember long speeches by imagining a walk through a vast mansion, with the objects in each wing representing specific memories. “When we are building the space where everything happened, in detail, every element – every piece of furniture, utensil, anything – in there, somehow you see how memory kind of re-emerges through these objects and returns through these objects,” Weizman explains.

A still from Forensic Architecture’s Mir Ali report.

This is the work of Forensic Architecture (FA), a research and activist group made up of artists, architects, cultural theorists and legal experts, all seeking to use the evidence of space and structure in the investigation of conflict. Weizman is its leader, having founded it with a grant from the European Research Council in 2011. He’s professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, and something of a notorious figure within his field. In 2002 he presented settlements as his choice of the best of Israeli architecture at the International Union of Architects Congress in Berlin, attracting the ire of the Israeli establishment. His work since then, in books like Hollow Land, has looked at the ways in which violence is conducted with the built environment, with particular attention paid to the West Bank and Gaza. He was a fitting choice of subject for Al Jazeera’s recent series of short films, Rebel Architecture.

The Architecture of Violence, dir: Ana Naomi de Sousa.

There’s a philosophical framework to Forensic Architecture’s work. It’s about “turning the gaze against the state”, using methods of spatial analysis as forensic tools in an “inversion” of the normal judicial process. He calls this forensis, not forensics. (It’s also the title of the Forensic Architecture project book, subtitle: “The Architecture of Public Truth”.)

“There is a feature that is a constant in working against the state with technology, and that is an inversion of the most important and basic forensic principles – that states, ie the police, should see in high resolution, see better than the criminal,” Weizman explained to me over coffee in his east London home. “Because otherwise you have a space of denial, or negation, in which the criminal can always mobilise. Now what happens in forensis, rather than forensics, is an inversion of the forensic gaze. It’s no longer the state and its institutions that are investigating citizens or non-citizens, but society, organisations, individuals and political groups. They are inverting the forensic gaze and looking up to the state, for state crimes. But you’ll always be in epistemological or visual inferiority. You’ll always have less of a resolution.”

He points to drone strikes as an example, where targets are chosen with cameras which have resolution of perhaps a few centimetres, or even millimetres, per pixel. By comparison, commercial satellite imagery has a metre (or maybe only half a metre) per pixel. For anyone trying to use satellites to keep tabs on war zones – be it an individual with Google Maps, or even the UN – the evidence is unavailable because of technological limitations. “What you see is that unlike cases in Darfur, or Gaza, where you can take before and after [images], the UN can take before and after images and see what has been destroyed, [but] in drone strikes the rocket goes through the roof, and leaves a hole in the roof which is smaller than the size of the pixel,” Weizman said.

“A before and after would not show you any difference. That is an example of an epistemological visual inferiority that you have to invert – you have to think, what access do we have? What information do we have? What new modes of thinking allows us to undo that space of denial between the few millimetre pixel and half-millimetre pixel? That’s the space of denial. This is why the state can say it cannot see it – they can say, we neither confirm or deny.”

Forensis is a method of forcing the state to admit to the existence of a crime, even if it won’t admit to culpability. Weizman points to the etymology of the word forensics, meaning “before the forum”, and how physical evidence demands a judicial response. If there’s no evidence, or the evidence is in an inaccessible form, then violence goes unchecked. “Our work happens in frontier zones. Forensis is forensics where there is no law, and in international law, the forum comes after the evidence, and evidence would call forth a forum. The graves of Srebrenica called forth the ICTFY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] to gather around the evidence, for example. This is why the entire universe of international law is very, very fragile.

“It’s being formed around the type of violations that are happening, and it continuously changes as the nature of war is changing and the nature of violations change. New types of weapons, drones for example, or semi-robotic weapons. It requires a different way of evidence gathering, and a different way of presentation.”

FA’s case files show what this means. There’s the “left-to-die boat”, where 63 migrants died in adrift in the Mediterranean in 2011, within an area under the observation of Nato as part of the then-revolution in Libya. Satellite images of the area were used to establish boat movement patterns, and commercial boating data was used to remove the boats with known identities from the picture. Mobile phone signals were used to triangulate the migrant boat’s drift, establishing its presence near many other boats – and therefore providing evidence for the charge that the crews of those boats committed a crime by failing to aid a vessel in distress.

A reconstruction of the drift of the migrant boat, with other vessels charted in the area. Image: Forensic Architecture.

In another example Weizman shows me (as part of a work-in-progress, for a case being prepared for submission to the UN), a shaky handheld video leaked to MSNBC of the aftermath of a drone strike is broken down into a series of still frames. “We build a panorama,” he explains. “So now we have the entire ruin, we look at different features – we see a bend in the road here, we see a high tower here – which are then pieced together to create a full image.” The exterior features place the video in a specific place in Waziristan, while the shadows reveal the time of day the strike happened. The end result is a 3D render of the interior and exterior of the building, down to the locations of the shrapnel holes in the living room walls.

“And then you see here, two shadows where there are less shrapnel,” he points out. “We think that this is the shadow of the people, their body would have absorbed that shrapnel. They have been photographed onto the wall, no? Architecture and the dead body kind of combines here.” These kinds of sources, whether from traditional or social media, are enhanced and turned into evidence with technology – and, in turn, that evidence compels a national or supranational legal authority to listen to a case brought before it.

There’s a kind of cat and mouse game at play here, Weizman says, as every time the public learns to outpace the state, the state teaches itself new methods to reinstate the gap in resolution. “I think that [the state] shouldn’t have the upper hand, and I think social media mobilisation is something that could close that gap. But I think actually it’s never in the technology because the state could scan social media too. It’s in the aesthetic sensibility, or ingenuity in which you mobilise it. This is why our forensic agency is organised with artists, filmmakers and architects. There are no scientists – we are trying to think like artists, and trying to think about it with the aesthetic sensibility of art.”

The erosion of the advantage social media gives us is also a persistent worry with the work of Higgins and bellingcat, and why so much effort is spent on both verifying information and making the process of verification clear for anyone to check. There have been multiple reports of “cyber armies” funded by nations around the world – be they the hackers of the Syrian Electronic Army, the botnet legions of Russia,  or Chinese Twitter accounts spreading anti-Free Tibet propaganda. (This is not something confined to geopolitical opponents of the West, it must be emphasised – intelligence agencies in the US and Europe are also “plugged in” to social media, sifting through it for relevant information, and it would be a surprise if they also were not running their own accounts to influence the online perception of breaking news.)

Higgins places his trust in the open source verification process as a way of eliminating the possibility of manipulated information, working in tandem with those who have proven themselves to be trustworthy gatekeepers. “These are individuals who build up a reputation, like myself, for being reliable,” he said. “People are collaboratively reviewing stuff, but you have the gatekeepers who do the final review, to make a judgement as to whether it's reliable. If you’re a gatekeeper and you start putting out stuff that's wrong, then you very rapidly lose your reputation. That’s the structure that’s developed, organically – the huge amount of information needs lots of people checking it, but also someone trusted to say it’s OK information. For example, if we’re looking at all this metal and the direction of the shrapnel, if we suddenly saw the shrapnel was coming in the other direction then we'd immediately be thinking ‘why is that different?’ That would be highlighted.”

He points to the last year’s work on the gas attacks in Damascus as an example of how “investigating all the things that it’s possible to investigate” creates a stronger case that’s more difficult to undermine with false information. “That involved tonnes of video footage, images, statements from people on the ground. When the White House published their map of who controlled the site on 21 August, the one area which was the likely launch site for the attacks was left blank – I was able to figure out, based on about 25 videos posted by a Russian-language news channel, where the government forces were. Then I was able to find footage from the opposition side attacking government forces in the area, which meant I could establish where the front lines were, and once I’d established the impact locations of the rockets that were fired we had a rough idea of what the range was, and we could say these rockets were in range of this government-controlled area.”

Another potential weakness in decentralised investigations is that their incompleteness can give a misleading impression – an example here being the attempts by users of reddit to identify the person responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013. It quickly became a witch hunt directed at brown-skinned men wearing backpacks in pictures of the crowd by the finishing line of the race, and fed into a larger panic over domestic terrorism which was eagerly encouraged by the tabloid press. One suspect in particular, a student named Sunil Tripathi, had been reported missing a month before the attack, and his family was distraught that their son was being named as a terrorist on the basis of one user mistakenly saying that they had heard his name mentioned on a police radio scanner. When Tripathi was found dead a week later, an apology from those who had jumped to conclusions did little to assuage their grief.

“It feels like there’s this frustration people have when they see this information on the internet and they don’t see it being reported in traditional news media, or if their government seems to be aware of it,” said Higgins. “It was interesting to see the response after the White House published their report on the 21 August gas attacks – the gap between what was coming out of the White House and what was coming out of my blog was absurd to a lot of people, especially when the UN report went on to agree with what I had.” He praises larger news organisations for “erring on the side of caution” when it comes to publishing source material that has been crowdsourced, and for limiting the loss of nuance as information gets passed from organisation to organisation.

The model for bellingcat isn’t just collaboration between individual armchair investigators, but also collaboration between traditional gatekeepers of information and those who are working outside of that framework – and Higgins believes traditional investigatory bodies will “really need to start engaging” with decentralised, crowdsourced methods of finding and analysing evidence.

Weizman, for his part, is keen to stress that architecture, like all technology, “can be used for good or bad things”, and finding ways to change the direction a piece of technology points is crucial part of his intellectual mission. Maybe – after all, the internet began as a military research project – we can see the work of crowdsourced conflict research as a kind of mob, storming the gates and turning something repressive into something liberating.

“The liberating is how you use it, and it usually happens at the moment of transformation,” he explains. “It happens in the first moment when you storm, or gain hold of, or enter a building that was used as a prison, a settlement, a military base and turn it into something else. I remember when the Palestinians first entered the military base in Beit Sahour [in the West Bank, where Weizman’s practice Decolonising Architecture has a studio] the first thing they wanted was to just smash it, there was something liberating about it. It was an incredibly powerful moment. The Palestinian police were trying to protect it and I thought it was wrong, because you need to let this spontaneous moment happen, that was the moment of transformation. And into those ruins we entered and we tried to convert it into something else.”

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Credit: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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A century ago, the Spanish flu killed 100 million people. Is a new pandemic on the way?

Our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have.

It is hard not to have a sneaking envy of the virus. As complex creatures, we are distracted by myriad demands on our attention; we will never know the dead-eyed focus of the viral world. It is akin to the psychopath: a cold, purposeful drive to achieve its own agenda, coupled with the skills and resourcefulness to succeed. In a world threatened by nuclear war and devastating climate change, it may actually be the virus that we should fear most.

This is the centenary year of the Spanish flu outbreak, when a virus killed between 50 and 100 million people in a matter of months. The devastation was worldwide; it is only known as Spanish flu because Spain, neutral in the ongoing hostilities of World War One, was the only country without press restrictions. Across Europe, people assumed their own outbreaks originated in the only place reporting on the disaster.

A number of authors have lined up with a kind of grim celebration of influenza’s annus mirabilis. As well as chronicling the fatal reach of this organism, they all offer a warning about a follow-up pandemic that is overdue – and for which, it seems, we are largely unprepared. “Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey, or pig, preparing to jump to a human being,” says Jonathan Quick in The End of Epidemics. “It has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

If that seems a little shlocky, you should know that Quick is no quack. He is a former director at the WHO, the current chair of the Global Health Council and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. The book’s blurb includes endorsements from the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the president of Médicins Sans Frontières, and the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The numbers Quick serves up are stupefying. Bill Gates, for instance, has said it is more likely than not that he will live to see a viral outbreak kill over 10 million people in a year. In Gates’s nightmare scenario, outlined by computer simulations created with disease-modelling experts, 33 million people die within 200 days of the first human infection. The potential for exponential spread means a death toll of 300 million is possible in the first year. “We would be in a world where scrappy, ravaged survivors struggle for life in a zombie-movie wasteland,” Quick tells us in his informed, cogent and – honestly – frightening book.

If you can’t imagine what that is like, you could try asking the Yupik people of Alaska, who were devastated by the 1918 Spanish flu. You might not get an answer, however, because they remain traumatised, and have made a pact not to speak about the pandemic that shattered their ancient culture.  (A pandemic is a disease that spreads across continents; an epidemic is usually contained within a country or continent.)They aren’t the only long-term sufferers. The Vanuatu archipelago suffered 90 per cent mortality and 20 of its local languages went extinct. Those in the womb in 1918 were also affected. A baby born in 1919 “was less likely to graduate and earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, claim disability benefit, and suffer from heart disease,” reports Laura Spinney in Pale Rider.

Such arresting snippets of the flu’s legacy abound in Spinney’s thoughtful, coherent take on the 1918 outbreak. The book’s subtitle suggests that the Spanish flu changed the world, and Spinney certainly backs this up. Societies broke down and had to be rebuilt; recovering populations were reinvigorated by the simple calculus of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; public health provisions were first imagined and then brought into reality; artists and writers responded to a new global mood by establishing new movements.

Not every outcome could be spun as a positive. Scientists, for instance, were humiliated by their inability to halt the flu’s progress, creating an opportunity for quack medicines to arise and establish themselves. Some of our greatest writers lived through the trauma, but could never bring themselves to discuss it in their stories. Virginia Woolf noted that it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”.

Spinney’s background as a science writer shines through: her handling of the workings of the flu is detailed and deft. She brings both the influenza A virus (the only type responsible for pandemics) and the human immune system to life, laying out the biochemical processes that kill and cure with clarity and care. She exposes the chilling roots of often-used but seldom-explained viral names such as “H1N1” (Spanish flu) or “H5N1” (bird flu). H is for haemagglutinin, the lollipop-shaped appendage that allows a virus to break into a cell and take over the means of production. N is for neuraminidase, the “glass-cutter” structure that allows replicated viruses to break out again and unleash hell upon the host. So far, we know of 18 H’s and 11 N’s and they all have ever-evolving sub-types that make a long-lasting general vaccine against the flu an elusive dream: “Every flu pandemic of the 20th century was triggered by the emergence of a new H in influenza A,” says Spinney.

For all her technical expertise, Spinney has a light touch and a keen eye for the comic. She relates how a ferret sneezing in the face of a British researcher in 1933 exposed influenza’s ability to travel between biological species, for instance. She also excels with the bigger picture, detailing the century of scientific detective work that has allowed us to piece together the genetic elements of the 1918 virus and gain insights into its creation. It seems to have jumped to humans on a farm in Kansas, via domestic and wild birds indigenous to North America. There may also have been some ingredients from pigs, too, but that’s not settled.

Spinney’s afterword questions whether our collective memory for such events ever reflects the truth of the moment. “When the story of the Spanish flu was told, it was told by those who got off most lightly: the white and well off,” she tells us. “With very few exceptions, the ones who bore the brunt of it, those living in ghettoes or at the rim, have yet to tell their tale. Some, such as the minorities whose languages died with them, never will.”

That said, Catharine Arnold has done a remarkable job of relating the tales of a diverse set of sufferers, crafting an arresting and intimate narrative of the 1918 pandemic. She pulls the accounts of hundreds of victims into a gripping tale that swoops down into the grisly detail, then soars up to give a broad view over the landscape of this calamitous moment in human history.

Arnold’s remembrances come from the unknown and from celebrities. A Margery Porter from south London emphasised that “we just couldn’t stand up. Your legs actually gave way, I can’t exaggerate that too much.” John Steinbeck described the experience of infection as almost spiritual. “I went down and down,” he said, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.”

The reality was, inevitably, less poetic. A local surgeon removed one of Steinbeck’s ribs so that he could gain access to the author’s infected lung. Most victims’ bodies turned blue-black as they died. Healthcare workers reported appalling scenes, with delirious patients suffering horrific nosebleeds. “Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room,” a navy nurse recalled. If their lungs punctured, the patients’ bodies would fill with air. “You would feel somebody and he would be bubbles… When their lungs collapsed, air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise with sounded like Rice Krispies when you pour milk over them.”

The killer in 1918 was often not the flu virus itself but the “cytokine storm” of an immune system overreacting to the infection. Strong, fit young people, with their efficient immune systems, were thus particularly at risk, their bodies effectively shutting themselves down. Then there were the ravages of opportunistic bacteria that would lodge in the devastated tissue, causing pneumonia and other fatal complications. Arnold paints a grim but vivid picture of exhausted gravediggers and opportunistic funeral directors cannily upping their prices. The morgues were overflowing, and morticians worked day and night. In the end, mass graves were the only answer for the poverty-stricken workers attempting to bury their loved ones before they, too, succumbed.

No one was spared from grief or suffering at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”, as the flu came to be known. Louis Brownlow, the city commissioner for Washington DC, reported nursing his stricken wife while answering telephone calls from desperate citizens. One woman called to say that of the three girls she shared a room with, two had died, and the third was on her way out. Brownlow sent a police officer to the house. A few hours later, the sergeant reported back from the scene: “Four girls dead.”

Some of the other stories Arnold has unearthed are equally heartbreaking. A Brooklyn boy called Michael Wind wrote of the moment his mother died after less than a day of being ill. He and his five siblings were at her bedside, as was their father, “head in hands, sobbing bitterly”. The following morning, knowing that he was soon to die too, their father took the three youngest children to the orphanage.

Arnold writes beautifully, and starkly, of the tragedy that unfolded in the autumn months of 1918: “the Spanish Lady played out her death march, killing without compunction. She did not discriminate between statesmen, painters, soldiers, poets, writers or brides.” She chronicles the Lady’s path from the United States and Canada through Europe, Africa and Asia, culminating in New Zealand’s “Black November”. The book is utterly absorbing. But how do we respond to its horrors and tragedies? What are we to do with our collective memories of such visceral, world-shattering events? Learn from them – and fast, argues Jonathan Quick.

Unlike Arnold and Spinney, Quick is not content to be a chronicler or a bystander. He is, he says, both terrified at the looming disaster and furious at the lack of high-level reaction to its threat. He is determined to create a movement that will instigate change, mimicking the way activists forced change from governments paralysed by, and pharmaceutical companies profiteering from, the Aids pandemic. Quick has channelled his fury: The End of Epidemics is, at heart, a call to arms against influenza, Ebola, Zika and the many other threats before us.

 

So what are we to do? First, our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have. We must strengthen our public health systems, and create robust agencies and NGOs ready to monitor and deal with the threat. We must educate citizens and implement surveillance, prevention and response mechanisms, while fighting misinformation and scaremongering. Governments must step up (and fund) research.

We can’t develop a vaccine until the threat is manifest, but we can prepare technology for fast large-scale production. We can also invest in methods of early diagnoses and virus identification. Invest $1 per person per year for 20 years and the threat will be largely neutralised, Quick suggests. Finally – and most importantly – there is an urgent need to create grass-roots support for these measures: citizen groups and other organisations that will hold their leaders to account and prevent death on a scale that no one alive has ever experienced. Is this achievable? Traumatised readers of Quick’s book will be left hoping that it is.

For all the advances of the last century, there are many unknowns. Scientists don’t know, for instance, which microbe will bring the next pandemic, where it will come from, or whether it will be transmitted through the air, by touch, through body fluids or through a combination of routes.

While there is considerable attention focused on communities in West Africa, East Asia or South America as the most likely source of the next outbreak, it’s worth remembering that most scientists now believe the 1918 influenza outbreak began on a farm in Kansas. Quick suggests the
next pandemic might have a similar geographical origin, thanks to the industrialised livestock facilities beloved by American food giants.

Viruses naturally mutate and evolve rapidly, taking up stray bits of genetic material wherever they can be found. But it’s the various flu strains that live inside animals that bring sleepless nights to those in the know. They can exist inside a pig, bat or chicken without provoking symptoms, but prove devastating if (when) they make the jump to humans. As more and more humans live in close proximity to domesticated animals, encroach on the territories inhabited by wild animals, and grow their food on unprecedented scales, our chance of an uncontrollable epidemic increase.

The meat factories known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are particularly problematic. They provide cheap meat, poultry, dairy and
eggs from animals kept in what Quick terms “concentration camp conditions”, simultaneously creating the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous pathogens. Pigs, he points out, eat almost everything, so their guts are the perfect mixing bowls for a new and deadly influenza strain. “CAFOs were the birthplace of swine flu, and they could very likely be the birthplace of the next killer pandemic,” Quick warns.

There are other possibilities, though – bioterror, for instance. Bill Gates is among
those who have warned that terrorist groups are looking into the possibility of releasing the smallpox virus in a crowded market, or on a plane. Then there is the possibility of a scientist’s mistake. In 1978 a woman died after smallpox was released from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham, UK. In 2004 two Chinese researchers accidentally infected themselves with the SARS virus and spread it to seven other people, one of whom died. In 2014, a cardboard box full of forgotten vials of smallpox was found in a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later, the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to labs in the US and a military base in South Korea. It’s not impossible that human error could strike again – with catastrophic results.

Such possibilities lie behind our discomfort with what scientists have to do to further our understanding. Researchers in Rotterdam, for instance, wanted to know whether the deadly H5N1 bird flu could develop a capacity for airborne transmission like the common cold virus. Having failed to modify its genetics to achieve this, they began to pass an infection between ferrets, the animals whose response to the virus most mimics that of humans. Ten ferrets later, healthy animals were catching the virus from the cage next door. Knowing how easily H5N1 can become airborne is exactly the kind of discovery that will bolster our vigilance. It is, after all, many times more fatal than the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu. At the same time, there was a huge – but understandable –
furore over whether the research should
be published, and thus be available to potential bioterrorists.

We might have to live with such dilemmas, because it is important to be ready to challenge the killer virus when it arrives. As we have seen with Aids and the common cold, developing vaccines takes time, and there is no guarantee of success, even with a concerted research effort.

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Will we be ready? Quick suggests that our best chance lies in the world’s business leaders realising what’s at stake: economies would be devastated by the next pandemic. In 1918, Arnold points out, the British government was telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to “carry on” and make sure the wheels of industry kept turning. The result was a perfect environment for mass infection. Political leaders made similar mistakes across the Atlantic: on 12 October President Wilson led a gathering of 25,000 New Yorkers down the “Avenue of the Allies”. “That same week,” Arnold reports, “2,100 New Yorkers died of influenza.”

It’s worth noting that Spanish flu did not abate because we outsmarted it. The pandemic ended because the virus ran out of people it could infect. Of those who didn’t die, some survived through a chance natural immunity, and some were lucky enough to have maintained a physical separation from those carrying the invisible threat. The virus simply failed to kill the rest, enabling their bodies to develop the antibodies required to repel a further attack. A generation or two later, when the antibody-equipped immune systems were in the grave, and humans were immunologically vulnerable (and complacent) once again, H1N1 virus re-emerged, causing the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

As these books make clear, this is a history that could repeat all too easily in our time. Of the three, Pale Rider is perhaps the most satisfying. It has greater complexity and nuance than Arnold’s collection of harrowing tales, fascinating though they are. Spinney’s analysis is more circumspect and thus less paralysing than Quick’s masterful exposition of our precarious situation. But the truth is we need all these perspectives, and probably more, if we are to avoid sleepwalking into the next pandemic. Unlike our nemesis, humans lack focus – and it could be our undoing. 

Michael Brooks’s most recent book is “The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook” (Scribe)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Laura Spinney
Vintage, 352pp, £25

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History
Catharine Arnold
Michael O’Mara, 368pp, £20

The End of Epidemics
Jonathan D Quick with Bronwyn Fryer
Scribe, 288pp, £14.99

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.