If you ask John M. Barry, bestseller author of The Great Influenza: the Deadliest Plague in History, why he decided, years ago, to write about the specific topic of the 1918 Spanish flu, he answers:
“Things happen. Oddly enough, I didn’t originally intend to, I had planned to write about the home front in WWI,” he explained.
Barry’s Influential Book
It took the historian seven years to finish the book on the mortal disease, a detailed work which ended up, in 2005, in the hands of an American president: George W. Bush. At the end of the reading of Barry’s essay, the POTUS of the time decided that America, in the event of an epidemic, had to make itself ready to resist and prevent mass casualties.
Today, in our COVID-19 emergency era, the former Republican president refused to comment the sentence he pronounced 15 years ago: “if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare and one day, many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.”
There is a precise phrase by Hegel that the historian often quotes: “what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” As Barry later noted, “Bush tried to prove Hegel wrong.” What the author himself pointed out a few days ago on the pages of the New York Times, is that humanity has learned little from its past mistakes.
Humanity Failed Badly in 1918
Barry’s editorial on the New York Times, “the Single Most Important Lesson From the 1918 Influenza” reminded us that, in the attempt to limit the spread of the virus, humanity failed. And the lesson of 1918, — when the Spanish pandemic exploded, killing between 50 to 100 million people around the world — was: “speak the truth.” During the last century influenza, people couldn’t believe anything newspapers said: journalists were threatened with jail, if they ran true stories about the illness. As Barry explains, the Spanish flu was not born in Spain: we call it Spanish because in that country indeed, the media were free to report about it, unlike in the rest of the world.
IO: In 2020, covering the Corona crisis, what do we have to keep in mind?
JB: “The same as in 1918. Lies kill”
IO: I know this question has been asked to you many times in the recent months and I apologize in advance because I have to repeat it again: can we draw parallels and compare the two pandemics, Covid-19 and the Spanish flu?
JB: There are many parallels, but the chief difference is that Covid-19 is, thankfully, much less lethal. Unfortunately it’s also more contagious. And a major difference, which creates both possibilities and enormous problems, is the incubation period, which, on average, is triple that of influenza. This creates more opportunities for asymptomatic transmission, but also a chance for contact tracing. Influenza’s incubation is too short for contract tracing to make sense. The whole course of the disease, how long someone sheds virus, takes longer as well. That presents tremendous problems for restarting everything.
IO: In the last weeks we heard many prime ministers and presidents saying about Covid-19: “It’s all under control”. But it was not. From Europe to America they had to step back from that statement. You repeated many times: “People deal better with reality than uncertainty”. Could you tell us what happened in Philadelphia in 1918 and why do you often use that example opposed to the San Francisco reaction, during the Spanish influenza emergency?
JB: Both cities suffered a lot. Both were among the hardest hit in terms of excess mortality. But the experience was much different: in Philadelphia, public authorities lied and said there was nothing to worry about. They said: this is like an ordinary influenza, and as a result, society began to fray. When they repeatedly asked for volunteers, no one came forward. San Francisco was one of the very few cities where politicians, business leaders, labor leaders and public health people, signed a joint statement, which the newspaper published in huge type: “WEAR A MASK AND SAVE YOUR LIFE.” The masks didn’t do much if any good and certainly didn’t control the outbreak, but San Francisco functioned. When schools closed, teachers even volunteered as ambulance drivers. There was en element of trust and community service that didn’t come to the fore in Philadelphia, I think largely because of the message from public authorities.
IO: Did you ever think you would witness an epidemic in your lifetime?
JB: Yes and no. Understanding the threat, I thought it inevitable that something like this would happen eventually. Question was when. So I have not exactly been surprised. Nonetheless, to actually experience it is something entirely different.
IO: Not just the virus, also fake news and false stories are going viral these days. Did you expect such many conspiracy theorists, naive internet users and haters all around the world?
JB: Unfortunately social media does spread rumors and conspiracy theories very efficiently. But that happened in 1918 too: for examples it was believed that the Spanish flu was a German germ warfare, or that an aspirin produced by Bayer, a German company, caused it, or that the flu was indeed the Black Death from the Middle Ages, and not influenza.
IO: The course of history has often been changed by one of the most powerful, human emotion: fear, of which you have often written and spoke about. How widespread was it during the Spanish flu days and today?
JB: There was much more fear in 1918. The virus was more lethal, it could cause horrific symptoms, and no one knew if it would keep killing or stop. Today we do have a scientific community which provides honest and good information, available for those who care about it.
IO: You wrote that in 1918 “People were afraid to kiss one another, people were afraid to eat with one another. Some people actually starved to death because no one would deliver food to them.” Do you think the social distancing we are experiencing today will compromise our behavior in the future?
JB: From what I see, while there is fear present now, there is also a sense of community, of trying to help one another. My wife and I are over 70 and younger friends have volunteered to go to the grocery for us. Little things: but little things add up. And then there are big things: doctors and nurses are behaving with incredible heroism.
IO: You wrote: “The Spanish flu probably changed the course of history. Many thought they were witnessing the end of civilization.” Morgues out of space, fear and economic crisis. Even if the two virus are different, the consequences appear to be similar. What is the event that we have to fear most in the future?
JB: The biggest problem other than the fatalities, is, again, length of time. Will there ever be a return to normal, or will there be a new normal? Unless a vaccine is very effective, we won’t see a return to life as before for a very long time. This virus will be with use forever. It’s a new human disease”.
IO: A million dollar question: do you have any hypotheses about the natural, cross immunity or the discovery of the vaccine?
JB: I think we do have a chance to develop immunity over time. As people’s immune systems get used to it, the second and third time around, I hope our bodies will be better able to deal with it. Normally that would be the case, but whether that’s true for this virus, remains to be seen. As to a vaccine, the scientists are pretty optimistic. We can only hope optimism is justified.
IO: And the last, ten million dollar question: will we be victims or protagonists in the post COVID-19 era?
JB: I believe we will invest in preparedness after this, especially in scientific research and surveillance of emerging pathogens. If it’s possible, we will.”