Fake news, conspiracy theories and a deadly global pandemic — and that was in 1918

John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza," urges caution in comparing that time to this. But we can't help it

By Chauncey DeVega
Published May 8, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)
First responders load a patient into an ambulance from a nursing home where multiple people have contracted COID-19 on April 17, 2020 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. | Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station during Influenza Pandemic, Washington DC, USA, National Photo Company, 1918. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
First responders load a patient into an ambulance from a nursing home where multiple people have contracted COID-19 on April 17, 2020 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. | Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station during Influenza Pandemic, Washington DC, USA, National Photo Company, 1918. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

As the truism observes, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Almost 600,000 people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these deaths were preventable. The Trump regime, through willful negligence if not outright criminality, committed democide against the American people. The country's economy was devastated. While the Biden administration has made great strides in its vaccination program, decreasing the rate of death and resuscitating the economy, much work remains to be done.

The American people are traumatized. The economy is not recovering equally for all Americans. A culture of narcissism and selfishness, manifested in widespread refusal to wear masks, be vaccinated or otherwise behave in a socially responsible manner threatens to derail the country's recovery from the COVID-19 plague. The Republican Party and broader right-wing movement continue to encourage (and profit from) such antisocial and anti-human behavior.

The rage and grief from the COVID-19 plague and the Age of Trump will not disappear into the ether. The nation badly needs a reckoning and catharsis in order to process such an extended season of death and all the misery it has wrought.

One way to make sense of such great loss and trauma is to locate one's experience relative to the past. This is a way of creating a system of meaning, a kind of anchor when one feels adrift and alone both individually and as part of a community or society. In the United States the most visible anchor is the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 (commonly known as the "Spanish flu") and the decade that followed, known as the "Roaring Twenties."

A new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association puts forward evidence that there have been 522,368 "excess deaths" from March 1, 2020 to Jan. 2, 2021, as compared to annual averages from 2014 to 2019.

A new analysis from The New York Times ties the mortal coil of the COVID-19 present to the century-old past of the 1918 flu. Denise Lu's article "How Covid Upended a Century of Patterns in U.S. Deaths" explains:

A surge in deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic created the largest gap between the actual and expected death rate in 2020 — what epidemiologists call "excess deaths," or deaths above normal. ...

Since the 1918 pandemic, the country's death rate has fallen steadily. But last year, the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted that trend, in spite of a century of improvements in medicine and public health. ...

In 2020, a record 3.4 million people died in the United States. Over the last century, the total number of deaths naturally rose as the population grew. Even amid this continual rise, however, the sharp uptick last year stands out.

Combined with deaths in the first few months of this year, Covid-19 has now claimed more than half a million lives in the United States. The total number of Covid-19 deaths so far is on track to surpass the toll of the 1918 pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 nationwide.

It should be noted that while there are more surplus deaths from the pandemic, the per capita number of deaths from the 1918 flu was much higher.

Some have speculated we could see a 21st-century Roaring Twenties, driven by frivolity, freedom, hedonism, reinvigorated music, art and culture — an enthusiastic release of pent-up energies. This represents the hope that all the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic will be followed by some "reward." There are also projections that the U.S. economy will rebound strongly – although the national jobs report released Friday was a major disappointment.

Any attempt to turn the 1918 pandemic into a "usable past" for the present is largely a function of distance in time and a lack of organized and coherent cultural memory about that era. Seductive stories about 1918 and its place in the American popular imagination will be anchors for creating meaning in our own time.

But 1918 was very different from 2021. The Roaring Twenties were largely the result of the end of World War I, the fact that younger rather than older people were hit hard by the flu pandemic, expanding industrialization, a shift in population from the country to the cities, and other great social forces, including the suffragist movement and the first Great Migration of Black Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South.

In an effort to make sense of the similarities and differences between the 1918 influenza pandemic and COVID-19, and their relative impact on American society, I recently spoke to historian John Barry. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History" and has written several other books, including "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America."

Barry is also a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans and is a much sought out expert on influenza and how societies can better prepare to combat it.

In this conversation, Barry explains that comparisons between the two pandemics are fraught with challenges and should be approached carefully. Specifically, Barry recounts that the 1918 pandemic spread much more rapidly and was more virulent than COVID-19, a fact that contours America's divergent experiences with the two pandemics.

He also discusses the ways "fake news" and conspiracy theories create a type of connective tissue between America's experiences with COVID-19 and the 1918 flu — and warns that the politicalization of the COVID-19 pandemic is a deeply troubling difference between the Age of Trump and the flu pandemic early in the previous century.

Given the pandemic and all the societal devastation it has caused, how are you feeling?

I almost have survivor's guilt. After Hurricane Katrina, there was water in the street outside my house, it got up to the curb but didn't get over it. I had friends who lost everything. I had survivor's guilt then, and I feel like that now. My book "The Great Influenza" has done extraordinarily well in the last year. I hate for that to be the reason people bought my book. I couldn't really celebrate. I've been busy. I have to tried to help in indirect ways. Through op-eds and other means, I have tried to have a positive impact as we struggle through the pandemic.

Time feels broken because of the coincidence of the Trump regime and its assaults on reality and then the pandemic, which amplified those distortions. It's all very disorienting. How does our sense of time compare to what happened with the 1918 flu?

That is one of the things that the 1918 pandemic is not a precedent for. One of the biggest differences is time. The 1918 pandemic was much more intense and much more violent in terms of the actual experience of the illness. It was also much briefer. In any given community, the pandemic would sweep through over a period of weeks, six to 10 weeks, generally. Worldwide, probably two-thirds of the deaths occurred over a period of 12 or 13 weeks. The intensity and the speed with which the 1918 influenza moved is totally different from what we're going through now with COVID-19. When it was over, things went back to normal very quickly.

How do you think a culture deals with slow disasters, versus fast disasters?

People tend to ignore disasters. I am very well aware that Louisiana could do everything right and New Orleans could still go underwater. Yet I still live here. I am very aware of that fact. Every time I leave the city, I'm thinking that there may not be anything to come back to. I'm still living here even given my knowledge of that reality. I believe that the vast majority of the population in New Orleans does not think about how it could be gone through a major storm. I really believe most people just ignore it.

How did the 1918 flu and its immediate aftermath impact American culture?

It is so hard to separate the 1918 flu pandemic from World War I and what happened to American culture in the immediate aftermath. There's very little literature about that question. People who lived through it were scarred. I base that on very anecdotal evidence. For my book "The Great Influenza," I did interview some elderly people. Everyone who was old enough to have formed memories of that period remembered it very vividly. We also saw the idea of sickness being used as metaphor for many things. The pandemic was very much in the collective consciousness, even if serious novelists were not writing about it.

What about public memory?

The press did not treat the 1918 flu seriously during the outbreak, for reasons that are very different than today. There was real fake news coming out of the U.S. government about the 1918 flu. As a general rule, the media was extremely complicit with the U.S. government in telling those lies. It would be hard for media of that era to go back a few months later and say, "No, we lied to you. This is what really happened." There were certainly no congressional investigations. Of course, the federal government hardly did a thing anyway, it was a very different structure then. There was no partisan division over the 1918 flu. It was to no one's political benefit to try to expose the truth about the pandemic then. What we in America are going to encounter, in terms of what we learn about the pandemic and the response to it, in the next few years is very different on all those grounds.

How do we compare those questions of public trust and government transparency, with the 1918 flu and COVID-19 today?

There are a good number of similarities in terms of how the U.S. government responded, today with the Trump administration and back in 1918, but the motivations were very different. With the coronavirus pandemic, it was political self-interest. In 1918, there was an obsessive focus on the war. Today's pandemic also began in a moment where lies are omnipresent in the culture and politics. Also, in 1918 there was nobody like Dr. Fauci, certainly not at a national level.

The other thing that is different is that this time around there is a significant minority of the population that believed the lies, largely because of political partisanship. In 1918, nobody believed the media because the virus was too virulent, too frightening and too omnipresent. No matter how many times a newspaper headline would say "This is ordinary influenza by other names," those claims convinced no one. The public saw people dying, 12 hours after the first symptoms, across the street or in their own house. They were not convinced by a newspaper headline. It was at variance with their lived experience. Today of course, particularly early on when the virus was not geographically widespread, it was easier to believe that COVID-19 was really nothing.

Were there conspiracy theories about the origins of the 1918 flu?

The dominant conspiracy theory — and I do not know how widespread it was, in terms of having a large number of believers — was that the 1918 flu was a form of germ warfare. The connection there was made between "germ" and "Germany." That conspiracy theory was used to stir up more intense patriotism.

Reviewing the Trump administration's response to the pandemic, how do you separate incompetence from criminality?

In my opinion, incompetence always explains a lot more than conspiracy. As much as I possess disdain and hatred for Trump, I'm not sure that his behavior would rise to the level of criminality. I believe it is more stupidity and incompetence. But there is certainly liability there for how he and his administration responded to the pandemic.

What does America's new "normal" look like after the pandemic?

That depends on the virus. We do not know yet. If we stay ahead of the variants, then six or so months from now people are back at football stadiums without restrictions. Perhaps by March of 2022, during March Madness, there will be stands full of basketball fans. People have very short memories. We in America will be going back to a pre-pandemic normal faster than many expect.

Other societal changes will be extensions of things that were already in process, such as telemedicine and working from home.

But ultimately, if there is something worse out there than the South African or the Brazilian variant of COVID-19, if it can happen, it will happen.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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