When I encounter something I don’t understand, my default is to turn to history. Has something like this happened before? What can we learn from those who have gone before? There is much history can tell us, often leaving us in awe of the courage and tenacity of those who have lived in prior times. Yes, they also made mistakes, often horrific ones, but we should judge with care. In the times to come, history will also judge us.

As it looked like the threat of this virus was growing, I ordered John Barry’s, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Barry does extraordinary research around the 1918 so-called “Spanish Influenza,” though it likely started around an Army base in Kansas. The book is fascinating and filled with heartbreaking and inspiring stories. I commend the book to you. I learned something on every page, but here are a few takeaways:

  • A handful of key personalities brought the study of medicine in the US forward in the generation after the Civil War. The US was way behind Europe in terms of technology, lab techniques, and the quality of medical training and care. The work of these men did change the world.
  • But even in the face of this extraordinary work, the pandemic took over much of the country, and the world, between 1918 and 1920. At least 670,000 Americans died, and over 50 million people worldwide. The numbers are likely much higher.
  • But we didn’t talk about it much in this country because of the buildup to US involvement in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson didn’t make a single public statement on the pandemic for fear of undercutting his single-minded focus on a brutal and complete victory in Europe. Newspapers didn’t publish stories for fear of being branded un-American. Stories of the disease, especially the disease on Army bases, according to that school of thought, would signal to the world that we were weak and could not confront our enemies in the trenches in Europe with the force required.
  • Many public officials were ignorant and negligent. But heroic doctors and nurses stepped in, often at great risk. Seminary students in Philadelphia dug graves when no one else would.

Two more key notes, from Barry’s afterword:

  1. These things come in waves. The last five global pandemics (1889, 1918, 1957, 1968, 2009) each had multiple waves. And each wave is a little different. Beware of thinking “it is over.”
  2. Trust in our leaders, and among people together, is absolutely critical. In 1918 and 1919 many leaders made things far worse by minimizing the risk and downplaying what was happening. They put far more people in danger. “For if there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis. Risk communication implies managing the truth. You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth.”

This is an extraordinary time, and history so often repeats itself. We should not be bound by history – we don’t always have to do what was done before, or react directly to what was done well or poorly previously. But we must not be blind to its lessons.