A wise, trusted friend recommended Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History by Catharine Arnold for its sobering and apolitical perspective. One Saturday I zipped through its gripping and poignant tales. Here are some of my reflections.
Unfortunately, 100 years ago and 100 days ago humanity displayed frailty– emotional, political, and scientific. The population and leaders, then and now, denied reality and took unreasonable risks despite powerful and well-publicized evidence of danger.
100 years ago, World War I was peaking, the deadliest fight in history to that time. Both sides feared the gigantic army on the other side of no man’s land. Neither army understood their most deadly foe was invisible and closer than they could imagine. Troop ships and military bases incubated a killer deadlier than any army.
Across continents, generations, and political parties, people have sought and found speakers who would tickler their ears with what they wanted to hear. We ignored truth tellers who warned about what actions should take. No time zone, no ideology, no profession has a monopoly on folly.
In 1918 there were too few wise souls, but more than enough who were so focused on WWI they couldn’t imagine the cost of a plague or didn’t know what they didn’t know. Ignorant leaders facilitated infection and the death of millions.
Viruses are and were insensitive to gender, nationality, politics, race, or religion.
Every plague is a unique, horrific tragedy. COVID-19 is the worst pandemic of our lifetime. It may kill 4 million before it slips into medical history. The Spanish Flu was 25 times as deadly and killed 100 million people between 1918 and 1920.
This eminently readable volume tells scores of stories of people who knowingly risked their own lives for their community. Predictably there are also shameful tales of neighbors stealing caskets or cemetery workers emptying one casket into an open grave, then taking the box back for the next grieving family.
In 1918 science didn’t know what viruses were. Only in 1938, after the invention of the electron microscope, did humanity first glimpse the “horrible little beasties”.
The Spanish Flu may have kept Germany from winning WWI. The pandemic stopped their army when they had overwhelming force and immense momentum. Within weeks the Americans arrived, and the sheer number of Allies overwhelmed the flu-decimated Germans.
The pandemic killed more than the planet’s worst war to that time. Well-intentioned optimists broadcast happy talk. Dozens of leaders at various levels of authority encouraged people to get together for important reasons, like bond drives or celebrating the end of the war. Troop ships and military bases packed soldiers into confined spaces. The virus replicated in close contact with thousands of hosts. The pandemic surged when crowd gathered everywhere around the world. Viruses replicate.
Unfortunately, then as now, people learn slowly. Months after there was clear evidence that close contact was deadly, people in many states and several countries were still crowding together.
Most People Assess Risk Poorly
President Wilson got the Spanish flu, just as President Trump got COVID-19. Both survived. Most infected people then and now survived. Each day some people survive running red lights. A successful outcome does not mean the choice was wise.
In recent months, like 100 years ago, people had trouble taking invisible threats seriously. People drive drunk and others text while driving. Almost all survive. Yet when millions engage in high-risk behaviors the consequences become more visible. Virus replicate.
Many of the headlines and disputes that made the news recently, were echoes of the three years that the Spanish flu circled the globe in three waves
Life in general is persistent. Each of our lives individually is fragile.
Catherine Arnold’s book tells of the sheer terror of young, vigorous adults in their prime, feeling great at breakfast and dying before sunset. We’re fortunate our pandemic is less virulent than the one 100 years ago.
The book opens with the story of the man who may have been the first victim. It closes more than 90 years later identifying the DNA of the bird flu which killed 100 million. The author talked with scores of scientists. Many warned that another major pandemic, perhaps a bird flu would appear within our lifetimes. None of them knew that COVID-19 would explode within months of the book’s publication.
Many very smart people, including the likes of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, believe that knowledge, progress, and science will rescue our species. Maybe. But that depends on more than scientists.
It doesn’t matter if the expert knows how to solve a problem if people don’t trust the expert. It doesn’t matter if the expert is right if no one tests the idea and puts it to work.
Our species would be better off to attend to people who sometimes disagree with us. It is rare that one side is always right, and another side is always wrong.
San Diego libraries have many copies of Pandemic 918. You can buy an ebook on Amazon for $9.99. The first 29 pages and the last two chapters will intrigue and inform you, regardless of your politics or your confidence in science.
Temporarily you and I have influence. Neither one of us oversee national health, thank goodness. But we can encourage the people around us to behave responsibly and gracefully to others in distress. May you be healthy and may we all be wiser next year.
OK, now it’s your turn:
What’s been the best book or the best history you’ve encountered in the last year or so?
Terry Moore, CCIM, is the author of Building Legacy Wealth: How to Build Wealth and Live a Life Worth Imitating. Read his “Welcome to My Blog.”