Historians and researchers Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling were looking for a theme for their next joint work (they have already written Brazil: A Biography, in 2015) when the new coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the world – it was March and each one was in his city: Lilia in São Paulo and Heloisa in Belo Horizonte. “We believed that, in two months, everything would be resolved and we would meet again in person”, says Heloisa. As the future seemed increasingly uncertain, the researchers were motivated by the covid’s action to direct the new work. “We arrived at the Spanish flu, which, as we found more details, was very close to current events”, observes Lilia.
From March to September, they did a lot of research, especially in newspapers at the time and in dissertations, to finish The Ballerina of Death – The Spanish Flu in Brazil, now launched by Companhia das Letras. It is a detailed account of how the disease caused serious damage in several Brazilian capitals (Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Belém and Manaus).
The title, grimly poetic, is explained by the fact that the disease was also called a dancer “because it danced and spread on a large scale and because the virus slid easily into the host’s cells and changed over time and in the various places in which it focused ”, they explain in the book.
The first appearance of the influenza virus occurred in 1918, it is believed that in the United States, and caused at least 50 million deaths in the world (possibly up to 100 million, some scholars estimate). And although the pandemic lasted for two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a 24-week period, and more than half of those deaths occurred in less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. One faster and more lethal death than the First World War, which, between 1914 and 1918, killed between 20 million and 30 million people.
The action of the Spanish flu virus was marked by the violence of the symptoms – when seriously infected, the person was bleeding through the nose, ears, mouth, eyes, through any hole in the body, in short. According to eyewitness accounts, the patients turned blue with a lack of oxygen. They fell in bed in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoon they were dead.
“In Brazil, the Spanish flu arrived sometime in September. He came by sea and landed in the city of Recife, perhaps around eight o’clock in the morning of the 9th, when the ship Demerara, coming from Liverpool, docked at the external pier of the port with some passengers and crew members injured and others contaminated ” researchers in the book. “Once on the ground, it spread easily and quickly, from Recife to Rio de Janeiro, from the coast to the interior. The virus always followed the same path. It exported, expanded throughout the city and designed the contagion route, through the railroads, spreading across the interior of the country. ”
“And, as with any pandemic, there was a strong feeling of denial at the beginning, especially of the political class”, observes Lilia, drawing a parallel with the covid-19 which, even when it was spreading across the planet, was scorned by leaders State – some, like Trump and Bolsonaro, have continued to minimize the problem, even with the social isolation already established in almost all countries.
In Brazil in the 1920s, the population was 29 million and at least 35,000 died of the disease. Some, however, were mistakenly identified as one of the victims – this is the case of Rodrigues Alves, elected president of Brazil for a new term in 1918, but who was unable to take office in November because he fell ill. “The deputy, Delfim Moreira, took office and Rodrigues Alves died in January 1919”, says Lilia. “Only it wasn’t Spanish flu, as journalistic stories and history books show today – just look at the death certificate, which points to cardiac arrest caused by pernicious anemia.”
A series of false news and rumors, by the way, spread across the country on several subjects. Especially about supposed drugs that would fight the disease. One of the most widespread was quinine salt, used in the treatment of malaria and which, in addition to not helping against Spanish flu, caused sudden fainting. “Many people were identified as dead in the streets, when they had just passed out”, comments Heloisa.
Regional features, moreover, dictated miraculous ingredients. While, in the North and Center-West, medicinal herbs of indigenous influence predominated and, in Rio, the bet was chicken soup, in São Paulo, it was believed that the combination of brandy, lemon and honey was infallible. In fact, caipirinha was born, which became a popular drink, but without any effectiveness as a medication. “In the South, a correct measure was taken: not to take the chimarrão together, as it facilitated the spread of the virus”, says Lilia.
In the search for positive attitudes, Heloisa identified in Belo Horizonte an efficient combat program. “There was a delay in the perception of the severity of the disease, as it happened across the country, but, as soon as this happened, the doctors’ response was decisive. And that happened because there the flu was not treated in the field of politics. ”
In fact, the politicization of the Spanish flu was a serious problem that attacked several countries. After all, the nations involved in fighting the epidemic tried to minimize the threat, concerned that the truth would affect the morale of the population. “In cities like Recife, Salvador, Belém, it was feared that the flu announcement would empty the city’s port, which would cause great damage”, observes Lilia. “But, when the situation turns out to be critical, practically all the authorities tried to obtain scientific information. A positive attitude compared to the current situation, when we have a Ministry of Health without command. ”
The difficulty in dealing with death, both during the Spanish flu and now, in the face of covid-19, is one of the main permanent problems. “After pandemics, a death hijacking takes place in society: a place for collective mourning is not created and it becomes a trauma. And the situation gets worse when we have a president who is proud of his body as an athlete, ”continues Lilia. And Heloisa adds: “it is dangerous to forget – we always have to learn from memory and knowledge, as Albert Camus said”.