Former Washington Post reporter John Barry spent seven years writing a book about the 1918 flu pandemic. Many times he wanted to quit because the topic seemed irrelevant. It was published in 2004 with minimal publicity, to mediocre reviews. But now The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History is a best-seller.
The book makes readers feel like the world is handling this pandemic far better than it did the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide, 500,000 in the US or 0.65 percent of all Americans and double that percentage of young people. “Italy lost 1 percent of its population to the virus, the worst death rate of any developed country. Less developed countries were especially vulnerable; historians estimate Mexico lost between 2.3 percent and 4 percent of its entire population,” Paige Winfield Cunningham sums up in her report on 12 lessons to be learned from the 1918 flu pandemic.
Federal and state officials consistently played down the illness. President Woodrow Wilson never addressed the issue, though he got the flu himself. Newspapers told people the disease was subsiding while it was actually exploding. Fake and false cures were routinely promoted.
Major public gatherings, including parades, were allowed in major cities, leading to massive deaths, such as 117 deaths in Philadelphia in one day.
The third wave killed more than the first two waves, suggesting that the disease will remain deadly long after the initial curve is flattened.
Whether the US and the world are handling this pandemic better economically, however, remains to be seen, and won’t be known for years, until the nation and the world recover economically. The 1918 pandemic lost millions of lives unnecessarily but did not lead to a national or world-wide depression. How long will it take to recover in the 2020s?