If you thought the biggest disaster of the 20th century was WWII, then Laura Spinney would like to correct you, because the Spanish Flu may have killed more people than WWI and WWII combined. Death rates were relatively low in Western countries, but in many other areas of the world people died at much higher rates due to worse health care and hygienic conditions. The book was first published in 2017 and Spinney laments the fact that the Spanish Flu is the forgotten pandemic; ironically, we suddenly look back on it with great interest because we hope to glean some answers from it for our current situation.
Overall, I think the book is very educational at an introductory level. It provides general information on infectious diseases, viruses, and pandemics in an accessible way, while focusing on the Spanish Flu as the example for when more or less the worst case occurs. Spinney looks at it globally and takes us from Bristol Bay, Alaska, to the mines of South Africa, and from Odessa to Rio de Janeiro. She explains why the flu impacted Western Samoa differently than American Samoa, or why authorities in New York City decided to keep schools open during the pandemic. Individual stories are mixed in with all the facts in order to not swamp the audience with information which is definitely a good thing.
At the end, she looks at the aftermath of the pandemic, how science slowly advanced, but people nonetheless looked for alternatives to evidence-based medicine, she explains the baby boom that followed and the overall changes in the population, and she also describes the impact on the arts and literature. On the political side of things, public health became a major topic, and it was clear that plans for future pandemics had to be developed. Spinney only touches on many aspects of the pandemic and there were some parts where I wished that she would have gone into more depth on a certain subject. Also, there is a little too much jumping around on the timeline which can get confusing at times. In general, however, this is a very well-written book that gives a comprehensive overview of the pandemic.
Besides the extensive information on the Spanish Flu itself, this book is a reminder of how far science in general and medicine in particular have come in just a century, and of how lucky we are to have these advancements, but that there is still so much more to learn and discover. Spinney predicted that the next pandemic was just around the corner; now, we are in the middle of it, and despite all the knowledge we gained, some of the problems and uncertainties occurring are just the same as a hundred years ago.