Otra cita: cuarentena contra el mundo


En esta larga cita que copio más abajo, se cuenta la historia de un tipo, John Martin Poyer, que recibió la máxima condecoración de la marina estadounidense, la Cruz Naval, por las acciones que impidieron que la epidemia de gripe española asolase la Samoa Americana como había ocurrido en archipiélagos vecinos.

Ni un solo muerto.

«(v) Spanish Influenza meets a “quarantine-against-the-world” in American Samoa

However, the most striking recent instance of a “quarantineagainst-the-world” occurred during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 itself in the Samoan archipelago in the South Pacific. This episode was particularly informative because its specific circumstances created a virtual natural experiment in the potential power of such quarantines. (…)

The culturally and geographically homogeneous Samoan island chain had been artificially bisected in 1899 by two colonial powers— Germany (later replaced by New Zealand) and the United States. Both sets of colonial islands were run by autonomous and authoritarian military governments, and social and medical conditions were very similar on both sides of the artificial border (health infrastructures were rudimentary on both sides, and any healthcare came mainly from extended families). Nor were there any effective vaccines or treatments for flu anywhere on earth. The only fundamental difference in the flu preparation between Eastern (American) Samoa and Western (New Zealand) Samoa would prove to be a quarantine against-the-world.

As World War I was drawing to a close, the vast movements of soldiers across the globe probably helped to spread a new mutation of the influenza-A H1N1 virus. A fundamental shift in the virus’s primary antigens of neuraminidase and haemagluttinin had made it unrecognizable to the immune systems of large percentages of the world’s population, and the virus began spreading exponentially among its human hosts. (Ironically, this new appearance of flu became popularly dubbed the “Spanish Influenza” mainly because neutral Spain was willing to report its morbidity and mortality rates, while the belligerent powers feared to do so, lest they give aid and comfort to their enemies.) Within the course of no more than six to nine months, there would be somewhere between 20 million and 100 million deaths from this manifestation of flu (even at this stage in biostatistical history, the death rate for such a pandemic event was only guesswork—but it almost certainly far exceeded the combat deaths in the world war, and its human impact was unmistakable).

While the U.S. government was not keeping its military governor of Samoa, Navy Commander John Martin Poyer, very closely advised about the movement of Spanish Influenza across the planet (the war was a major distraction, and distant dependencies were rarely high priorities), he followed events on the radio, and he made his own plans.

Poyer began to seal off his set of islands from the entire flustricken planet, tightly quarantining all ships arriving in the main port of Pago Pago. He also utilized existing alliances with native chieftains (matai) to blockade any small-boat traffic traversing the international boundary channel from Western Samoa.

Meanwhile, a ship—the SS. Talune–had left Auckland, New Zealand in the last months of 1918, which soon proved to be carrying multiple cases of severe influenza aboard. In the ensuing weeks, this vessel seeded outbreaks in all its ports of call in the Southwest Pacific.

In early November, it arrived at Western Samoa’s capital city of Apia on the island of Upolu. The Talune was only subjected to a rudimentary marine quarantine in Apia Harbour (its captain may have downplayed the incidence of influenza aboard, and the harbour’s quarantine officer only asked the passengers a few perfunctory health questions). In short order, the routine yellow banner of the quarantine was lowered from the ship’s mast, and the steamer Talune received pratique to offload its crew, passengers, and cargo.

Within a short time, a violent epidemic of influenza had broken out across the port city of Apia, then quickly spread through Upolu and surrounding islands. Like many other Pacific Islanders, Samoan native people lacked a long historic experience with pathogens from the “world-island” (Asia-Africa-Europe) and the Americas, and they were singularly vulnerable to this strain of A/H1N1 influenza. Consequently, their death rate climbed to levels that were even extraordinary in that disastrous flu year: Within just a few months, some 8,500 people– 22% of the entire population of Western Samoa—were dead, with profound and lasting impacts on their familial (“fono”) and kinshipbased culture. Many deceased young adults left behind orphans, and, with some 45% of the matai having died, many village societies broke down. The New Zealand administrator of Western Samoa, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Logan, took few effective steps to try to stop the spread of influenza across the islands under his command. He also took umbrage at the self-isolation of American Samoa–which he regarded as an unfriendly act by an allied power, and he cut off communications with Poyer’s government across the channel (…)

Poyer’s actions were indeed unrelenting. At one point, he personally stood in a small boat in Pago Pago Harbor with a megaphone, and ordered the regular mail packet from Apia not to land unless it first underwent a rigorous quarantine. The ship turned away without unloading its cargo or passengers. For their part, native matai on American Samoa were aware of the influenza threat to their islands, and they helped Poyer by even turning away small craft carrying their own kinfolk from stricken Western Samoa.

In the end, classic Spanish Influenza never did reach American Samoa. Although a strain of flu finally entered the islands in 1920 (after Poyer had retired), it may have only been a mutated form of the deadly 1918 strain, and it killed no one. In fact, American Samoa attained an outcome that was virtually unique on earth in those plague years: Not a single member of the small colony’s population died of Spanish Influenza. Thus, the comparative flu deaths on the two Samoas in the relevant time period were approximately 8,500 to 0.

On June 10, 1919, John Martin Poyer left Samoa forever, honored with the Navy Cross and bidden farewell with a 21-gun salute. After a year of so many events–and so much misery–across the globe, world history soon forgot his name…. However, his highest tribute may have been a Samoan song overheard at the time of his departure (sung to the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner”). It began:

“Oi ai le motu i le Pasifika sauté Tutuila ma Upolu/A o Tutuila oi ai fu’a Meleke, a o Upolu le o Niusilani….,” and in translation:

There are two islands in the South Pacific, Tutuila and Upolu,
Tutuila under the American flag, Upolu that of New Zealand.
God has sent down a sickness on the world,
And all the lands are filled with suffering.
The two Islands are forty miles apart,
But in Upolu, the Island of New Zealand, many are dead,
While in Tutuila, the American Island, not a one is dead.
Why? In Tutuila they love the men of their villages;
In Upolu they are doomed to punishment and to death.
God in Heaven bless the American Governor and Flag.

De aquí.