Lake Bled. Photo: JOHNATHAN AMPERSAND ESPER/GALLERY STOCK
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Slovenia – the happy country that should be even happier

Slovenia is a small country on the sunny side of the Alps, once part of communist Yugoslavia. The streets are clean, crime is low and education good. But birth rates are falling and people are not as cheerful as one might expect.

There is a happy land, not so far away: the EU’s least-known country, a place fit to be twinned with Nirvana and Shangri-La. When I said I was going to Slovenia, most people either stared blankly or swooned. The swooners were right. It is charming.

How do I love thee, Slovenia? Let me count the ways. It is small, varied and pretty: a place of high Alps, but dominated by small, wooded hills. It has four proper, distinct seasons, as they do in New England and in story books. The food is good and the wine excellent. “On the sunny side of the Alps,” says one tourist slogan. Even the winds blow softly (usually).

There is a wonderful little sliver of Adriatic coast, somehow carved out in the post-1945 settlement as though by a child desperate to get a sight of the parade between the sprawling hulks of Croatia and Italy. And Ljubljana, the capital, is liveable, walkable, in places delightful, and surely the calmest capital in Europe. Even the motorists are unhurried, without malice: I never heard a horn. Safe? Karl Wilkinson, principal of the British International School, told me that he once found a wallet and took it to the police.

“What do you want us to do with it?”

“Well, I tried to take it to the address inside but there was no one in and nowhere to put it.”

“Just leave it on the doorstep,” said the bewildered copper. “No one’s going to steal it, are they?”

I heard several similar stories; and have myself never felt less late-night nervous walking home in any city except perhaps St Davids, Pembrokeshire. Even the US and Russian embassies nuzzle up to each other, in neighbouring villas.

There is a 1930s building known to everyone as Neboticnik – “the skyscraper” – with a cherished 12th-floor terrace cafe. It is no longer quite the highest building in town. But imagine if London could remember having just one skyscraper. Wouldn’t that be lovely? Slovenia is just so sweet. It is even naive enough to allow its national news agency website to have the address sta.si.

But this is far from a stupid country. Ordinary Slovenians are not just bilingual but often tri-, quadri- and whatever comes after that. Their education system is rated highly by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), though reputedly less keen on independent thought than it might be. The healthcare is good. The economy is growing fast, yet Ljubljana has been named the greenest capital in Europe; almost every street corner has six separate bins for different types of rubbish.

All of the above is true, except perhaps my first sentence. Slovenians just don’t seem to be happy: more than anything they seem short of confidence – in their own abilities and the future. In 2017, Save the Children ranked Slovenia alongside Norway as the best country in the world in which to raise kids, a senior official told me proudly, before adding: “Unfortunately, we lack kids.” The birth rate, short of 1 per cent, is the lowest in the EU, below even those notorious bambino-evaders next door in Italy. A high birth rate is sometimes taken as an indicator of optimism, which seems far-fetched to me. But somehow this enviable little country does seem beset by a certain lack of relish.

***

Imagine if, in the era when Europe was half red, you were sentenced to live in a communist country but invited to choose your destination. The obvious answer would have been Slovenia. It then occupied the north-western corner of Yugoslavia, with only a 12th of the republic’s area and population but delivering nearly a third of the exports. Slovenia was and is both fertile and industrially productive. Having settled all the postwar scores – seeing off Stalin above all – the Yugoslav dictator, Tito, relaxed into being a ruthless autocrat but not a monster. And here the idealism that had originally propelled socialism did not wholly wither. “My grandfather was a policeman and he regularly went on holiday with the CEO of a big company and the janitor from the primary school and all the kids would hang out together,” recalled a young policy advisor, Andrej Lavtar. “Even though on the Gini coefficient Slovenia is very egalitarian, this isn’t happening today.”

Work was compulsory but not arduous, so practically everyone mucked in on their family farms or built their neighbours’ houses in their plentiful spare time. Private property still existed. Travel was not difficult: in the Iron Curtain countries exit visas were usually restricted to trusties; behind Tito’s flimsier fabric, you got a passport unless you were actively distrusted.

Slovenia had the least worst of it. Tito’s Yugoslavia had two props: the Slovenian economy and American largesse; he knew better than to alienate either. He had a soft spot for the place anyway: his mother was a Slovene and he spent summers by the limpid waters of Lake Bled. Geography meant visiting the West was not just an aspiration or occasional treat for Slovenians, as it might have been for the distant Serbs. It was an almost routine occurrence: Italy and Austria were just up the road.

With occasional wobbles, Slovenia’s regime was also more liberal – under Tito’s quite genuine federalism – than those elsewhere in Yugoslavia. “There were writers locked up for a while because they were hostile to important political figures,” said the much-admired poet and playwright  Evald Flisar, “but nobody was tortured, nobody was ill-treated, nobody suffered.”

We met over a carafe of fine local vintage  in the evocative red-walled restaurant at the top of the Writers’ Building, where in the old days the intellectuals would drink and debate until deep into the night. Now it is quiet in the evenings and its glory days are gone. For a writer, life on the edge can be exhilarating, especially in retrospect, as long as the edge is not too precipitous.

As in Wales (and Slovenia really is the size of Wales, but with two million people not three), there was no history of independence as a nation state, and apparently no overwhelming yearning for it. What mattered most was the unique language  (they understand their neighbours all right but vice versa is harder) and its attendant culture. “We don’t have statues of generals,” said Flisar. “We have poets. There is only one statue of a general, Rudolf Maister, and even he was also a poet.”

After Tito’s death the economy – and the quasi-western douceur de vie – deteriorated. Yugoslavia’s dominant Serbs started  to morph into raucous nationalists who wanted to subvert the federal system and take total control. Slovenian independence was a defensive measure, secured by overwhelming support in a referendum and a brief and, by Balkan standards, almost bloodless war (about 75 dead) fought over ten summer days in 1991. The Serb-led army – faced by cunning and implacable opponents, desertion, and global opposition – showed uncharacteristic wisdom and gave up. Uniquely in this region, Slovenia did not have a substantial ethnic minority who could be represented by others as under threat.

***

Slovenia’s arrival in the comity of nations did not quite take the world by storm. It found itself constantly confused with Slovakia, which is not even nearby, by such expert geographers as George W Bush and Silvio Berlusconi as well as by a lot of befuddled postal staff. At a diplomatic culinary event, Slovenia entered a nutcake, which they were convinced could not be confused with anyone else’s: the Slovaks came up with the exact same recipe.

Once the banking crisis began ten years ago, Yugo-nostalgia began to kick in with a vengeance. A 2014 Gallup poll had a small majority of Slovenian respondents saying that the break-up had done more harm than good. I am less surprised by that now than I would have been before I got here.

Ljubljana’s Museum of Modern Art has a nice picture entitled Dreams of a Slovenian Alpinist, painted by Jernej Vilfan in 1982. It shows a range of stylised peaks, each with a flag on top. But the flag is not Slovenia’s; it is the emblem of now-defunct Yugoslavia. I accept that painting Slovene flags, had they existed, might have been a bit risky in 1982, but can one imagine a similarly titled picture incorporating the Union Jack or Spanish flag in a gallery in Glasgow or Barcelona? There is something curiously passion-free about Slovenian nationhood: they don’t even much like the flag they now have.

Yet Yugoslavia never really worked. It is impolite to mention the B-word – Balkans – in Ljubljana; the Slovenes have always considered themselves a cut above their raucous neighbours: we’re central European, you know, not (ugh!) Balkan; Austro-Hungarian, taking our culture from Vienna with Venetian sidenotes. They are the Ned Flanders of Europe, raising their eyes to the heavens at the latest outrage from the unruly Simpsons next door.

In return, they have always been considered both up themselves (“You’re Slovene, you probably think this song is about you”) and workaholic dull dogs. Flisar was once reading proofs of his latest book on a Croatian beach. “Look at him,” said a passing Croat. “Even on holiday. Slovene!” A young career woman told me she thought it more important to work than to have children. She did not sound as though she were making a personal choice, more stating an immutable truth. 

The former Labour MP Derek Wyatt came here from the UK on a parliamentary trip a few years back and disliked the place on sight: “A tight little country, controlled by about four people.” I put this comment to an editor in Ljubljana. “Four?” came the reply. “That sounds about right.”

The writer Joji Sakurai, who has settled in the coastal town of Piran, notes the strange layers of trust and distrust that exist in Slovenia. “One of the paradoxes is that they have all these high indicators on so many of these global rankings, yet also show very low levels of trust in both government and corporate governance.” It seems to be understood that you cannot bribe a traffic cop, nor any official in the notoriously sclerotic bureaucracy. A senior minister? That might just be different.

The mayor of Ljubljana, Zoran Jankovic, is acknowledged to have got things done, but even his Wikipedia page throws around allegations such as “abuse of power”, “nepotism” and “backhanders”, never mind what’s said in private. In the final round of the presidential election in November, the turnout was 41 per cent. In a recently empowered country, full of conscientious, earnest, educated people, that’s hardly a vote of confidence in democracy.

Still, the government seems to have a touching belief in the perfectibility of human nature. Its environmental record has been achieved at the cost of intimidating laws on what rubbish goes where. It has tried to ban people from helping friends build their houses – a time-honoured custom – for fear of money changing hands beneath the tax authorities’ radar. It has stern rules about shops giving receipts, for the same reason; to reinforce this it has instituted a lottery whereby you can send in receipts to be entered in a quarterly prize draw. One expat thinks this kind of stuff is having an effect: “The downside of them being so health, fitness and environment-conscious is that they’ve become hypochondriacs. Obsessional. The kettle has to be cleaned every day or terrible things will happen.”

The ultimate paradox is this: Slovenia’s low birth-rate means that immigrants are now needed; the obvious source is from the more benighted parts of the Balkans. Thus, the language-based solidarity that enabled them to fight so heroically and bound free may in time be lost.

***

And yet the country is amazing. I went up to Lake Bled, Slovenia’s number one resort, on All Saints’ Day, a national holiday. It was sunny, and quite warm by lunchtime. The place was far from empty and yet it was soothing and serene. The Alps had just had their first white dusting; early and late there were patches of mist wafting languorously through the foothills. I arrived back in Ljubljana to chestnuts roasting in the old town. It was hard to remember I was meant to be working.

Tourists are cottoning on, not all of them discerning. One lot of visitors have discovered delicious little Piran because it features in a Korean TV series. American tourism has jumped 15 per cent because Melania Trump was born in Slovenia. 

The country is still capable of great things. In September the national team won the European championships in basketball, a sport traditionally preferred to football, beating France, Germany and Spain. They were welcomed home in the rain by a crowd of 20,000 in a display of joyful patriotism.  “We’re not really a small country,” said the retired journalist Mitja Mersol. “More like a big family.” Mersol grew up under Tito and sometimes despairs of what he calls Slovenia’s “puberty politics” but has little truck with Yugo-nostalgia: “When I look at the young people and their start-ups, they are so innovative. It gives me quite a lot of optimism.”

Christmas is the time of year when belief in the normal laws of conception is traditionally suspended. So perhaps one of those young people will invent a more efficient way of manufacturing new generations for this very likeable family-nation. They need to stop the family shrinking.

For the next article in our series “The Lost Continent” Matthew Engel will visit Croatia

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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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.

****

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.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special