In 1918 the Spanish flu was slaughtering tens of millions around the world, yet in Paris the highest death rates were concentrated along the richest boulevards. This baffled scientists – until they realised that it wasn’t wealthy people whose eyes were bleeding, whose skin was blackening, whose corpses were piling up. It was their servants.
While les riches enjoyed high ceilings and grand balconies, their domestics were crammed below stairs in dark, dirty, suffocating rooms. They never stood a chance. One out of four women in Paris killed by the outbreak was a maid. As Laura Spinney notes in her history Pale Rider: “The flu may have been democratic … but the society it struck was not.”
Those words came to mind this morning, watching the TV coverage of London commuters going back to work. Here was the metropolitan working class – typically black, Asian, eastern European – squeezing themselves off a packed bus. Meanwhile, their political masters eased themselves out of their ministerial Jags and into Downing Street.
Countries have underlying health conditions too, easily preyed on by a virus.
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