Review: The Great Influenza

“In ten days – ten days! – the epidemic had exploded from a few hundred civilian cases and one or two deaths a day to hundreds of thousands ill and hundreds of deaths a day.
Federal, municipal, and state courts closed…Physicians were themselves dying, three one day, two another, four the next. The newspapers reported those deaths – on inside pages with other obituaries – even while continuing to minimize the epidemic. Health and city workers wore masks constantly…
And city authorities and newspapers continued to minimize the danger.”

Reading those words above, it feels *easily* like something you might read in a newspaper or see on television right now, doesn’t it? There are states in our current pandemic that have continued to downplay COVID-19, saying, “It’s just the flu.”. But those words are related to history, and unfortunately, history is something easily dismissed or…altered…for those who prefer not to be *inconvenienced* by the lessons to be learned. Those words come from the book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry.

I’ll be honest – I’ve had this book sitting on my shelves for a while now. I tend to be an emotional reader, one who has traveled with not only 3 or 4 books – but a Kindle as well, JUST. IN. CASE. But once we really started seeing not only COVID’s effects, but the absolute *refusal* of many to understand how much damage it can do, I was curious to read about the *other* pandemic – the one so many people are comparing *this* one to.

“It takes special trains to carry away the dead. For several days there were no coffins and the bodies piled up after something fierce….It beats any sight they ever had in France after a battle. An extra long barracks has been vacated for the use of the Morgue, and it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed and laid out in double rows…”

The interesting thing about this book is that Barry doesn’t just discuss the pandemic itself. He *also* talks about the scientists working feverishly on a vaccine, ANY vaccine, that might help somehow. He talks about the mindset of our country at the time – in a war, with a President who had no qualms about bending the laws to make sure every single citizen supported his goals. He gives a history of the science at the time, demonstrating both *how* and *why* the pandemic became as bad as it was. This isn’t to say that the book is boring – far from it. Barry does a good job tying all of this threads together in a seamless way, and it doesn’t drag along or get overly complicated.

“The disease has about reached its crest. We believe the situation is well in hand. From now on the disease will decrease.”

If you get a copy of this book to read, PLEASE do yourself a favor and get the updated version with the new afterword. It’s haunting to read about all the things that were put in place by our government and others after the H5N1 virus emerged, and to know that literally *none* of it was used during this current pandemic. It was also fascinating – and infuriating – to learn that even as China lied to the world about COVID, they had done the same thing with SARS.

“On September 28, marchers in the greatest parade in the city’s history proudly stepped forward. The paraders stretched at least two miles, two miles of bands, flags, Boy Scouts, women’s auxiliaries, marines, sailors, and soldiers. Several hundred thousand people jammed the parade route, crushing against one another to get a better look…It was a grand sight indeed…
The incubation period of influenza is twenty-four to seventy-two hours. Two days after the parade, Krusen issued a somber statement: ‘The epidemic is now present in the civilian population…'”.

It’s interesting as well that Barry discusses those in authority and the truth, particularly considering the current environment, where even simply wearing a mask has been politicized. One of the biggest faults found, looking back, on the governmental response to the 1918 epidemic was the way Wilson had co-opted messaging to the entire country, and how it did not allow for the truth to be shared. Rather, newspapers and governors all over the country (with the notable exception of San Francisco) kept to the party line – which only *increased* the fear felt by so many.

Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other…

Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best.”

Overall, COVID or not, this is a book worth reading if you have any interest in the politics of healthcare, history, bacteriology, science, or influenza specifically. So many disparate pieces that make up the whole, and it truly does give a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of science, which seems to be similar to the pieces of a puzzle – only by turning those pieces just the right way, and just in conjunction with the pieces around it, will it snap into place and be what is needed at that moment.

“This was influenza, only influenza.”