Bestselling Author John M. Barry on 1918 Pandemic – and Its Lessons for Today

It snuck up on a nation and world finishing what was then known as the Great War. It would go on to kill far more people than combat ever did.

It was the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide. (Today, that would equate to 220 to 430 million people.)

How the pandemic emerged – and, more importantly, how public officials tried to suppress news of it – was the focus of “The Great Influenza” by New Orleans-based author John M. Barry.

In an online briefing for the National Press Foundation, Barry – also a professor at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine – shared his insights on the 1918 episode and how it relates to the coronavirus of 2020. He spoke from his home in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which at the time of the session was experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases.

Two key lessons for policymakers, Barry said, are first, “Tell the truth. The failure to tell the truth in 1918 killed people.”  Second, recognize that containment is now impossible. Social distancing and other suppression strategies are now the only option, he said.

In 1918, leaders felt the need to keep on a positive face to maintain morale during World War I. News media went along at first. Some called the new strain “ordinary influenza.” Even after Philadelphia began digging mass graves, one newspaper wrote, “This is not a public health measure. There is no cause for alarm.”

Later, the United States used a law to prosecute and intimidate newspapers – and a Congressman – who tried to warn about how bad the so-called “Spanish flu” really was.

But when people saw the carnage around them, they knew they were being snowed. They turned distrustful of authority and of each other. Compared with today’s real-time world, communication was slower. That also fed the fear. Some towns closed themselves to outsiders and one man in Alabama had his throat cut for failing to keep away, Barry said. Authorities declared it a suicide.

“There was a lot more fear out there than there is now,” Barry said.

The 1918 pandemic involved an H1N1 strain of the influenza vaccine. It emerged in the spring of 1918 and was first identified in military personnel, according a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention history. It eventually infected 500 million people – one-third of the world’s population. In the U.S., 675,000 people died.

But the White House was mute. President Woodrow Wilson never talked about the influenza pandemic – even though he himself caught it during the 1919 peace talks.

Barry said social distancing helped flatten the curve in 1918 and it can do so today. While the U.S. has been slow to implement some helpful strategies, it has done better on others.

“We’re not Italy, thankfully, but we’re also not South Korea,” he said, referring to two countries at either end of the severity scale.

“It’s going to be a long haul,” he added.

The book took Barry seven years to complete and was a bestseller when it came out in 2004. It has experienced a second life in the age of COVID-19, landing at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list of paperbacks and selling out at Amazon and other online retailers. Barry offered a summary of the lessons from 1918 in this March 2020 piece.


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