The Great Influenza

I recently finished reading John M. Barry’s book, The Great Influenza. I’ve been hearing it cited all year (because of parallels between the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic). But a couple of months ago, I heard a more detailed description of the book on The Holy Post. So I reserved it from the local library (it had a wait time of several weeks). And when it finally came my turn to read the book, it coincided nicely with some time off. Consequently, I was able to get through this relatively large book in a relatively short amount of time. And I really learned a lot from my reading of the book!

There are a lot of similarities between the 1918 pandemic and the 2020 pandemic. Both pandemics affected significant numbers of people with both short-term illness, long-term complications, and death. Both pandemics brought society to a screeching halt. There was a lot of misinformation and fear in the case of both pandemics. And both pandemics brought out some of the worst in human behavior. Shaming and blaming enemies for the pandemic is one example. People acting in self-centered, self-preserving ways (at the cost of others) is another. It’s also interesting to see the way that political divisions sharpen in all the rush to deal with the pandemic. The similarities are remarkable.

There are also a lot of differences.

The viruses themselves are different, for one thing. The 1918 virus proved itself far more virulent (deadly) before it attenuated (became less powerful, in order to spread more widely). The group most affected by the 1918 pandemic was people in their 20s and 30s. The influenza virus cut these young people down in the prime of their life because of severe responses from their strong immune systems. In the case of our 2020 pandemic, however, older people are more affected because they have weaker immune systems. In both pandemics, scientists had to work hard to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Still, the gaps were quite a bit greater in 1918. General knowledge of viruses and bacteria was less. And it’s really kind of crazy how many technological advances have happened over the last century. Things like microscopes and medications and ventilators…

I wonder, however, if the most significant difference between the 1918 pandemic and the 2020 pandemic comes in the way that information was / is shared. In 1918, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) was in the midst of the first World War. As a result, governments used their wartime powers to withhold information about the pandemic for fear of “hurting morale.” So the president of the United States (Woodrow Wilson) never publicly acknowledged the Influenza pandemic. Not once! Today, we have almost the opposite situation. News about COVID-19 is abundant and overwhelming. Both situations — not enough information and too much information — bring their own challenges. But I prefer access to information. I’m glad that I have access to all the latest numbers from the State of Ohio. Even if I choose not to look at it sometimes.

I feel like this book spent more time than I would have liked describing the individual scientists who worked during the 1918 pandemic. It got repetitive at times, and it was also hard to tell some of the scientists apart from each other. Still, I thought the book provided a lot of insight. It was particularly interesting to hear the author’s theory about Woodrow Wilson’s own encounter with Influenza and the way it may have affected his role in the peace talks at the end of the war. If you can get your hands on a copy of this book while the COVID-19 pandemic is still happening, I think it would be worth your while to read.

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