No ordinary flu: Coronavirus and the lessons of the 1918 pandemic for a world on edge

Rebecca Corey
·Writer, Reporter and Producer

This is part of an occasional series of Yahoo News articles and accompanying videos on how the issues America faced in the 1920s — aka “the Roaring Twenties” — have echoes in our own decade, a century later.

As the death toll and number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus (COVID-19) continue to climb, an expert tells Yahoo News there’s one big lesson that leaders should heed from a pandemic that killed at least 50 million people from 1918 to 1920: “Tell the truth.”

John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” told Yahoo News he commends the breadth of information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and coverage by the media — a candidness that was absent during the 1918 H1N1 pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu. But he condemned President Trump’s assertion on Feb. 28 that the coronavirus is the Democrats’ “new hoax,” and Rush Limbaugh’s claim that it’s “the common cold.”

“Obviously it’s not a hoax and it’s not a common cold,” Barry said. “Those are two of the stupidest comments that any public official has ever made, if you want to count Rush as a public official.”

Trump’s initial downplaying of the coronavirus threat and subsequent remarks have raised some eyebrows. He contradicted health experts during a briefing on Monday when asked about the timeline for a coronavirus vaccine, claiming one could be ready in “three to four months.” Anthony Fauci, MD, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, corrected the president and said a vaccine is at least a year to a year and a half away. At a White House briefing on Feb. 29, Trump claimed that “the markets are very strong,” even though three major stock indexes had just posted their worst weekly percentage drops since the 2008 financial crisis.

During the Spanish flu pandemic, which raged from early 1918 to 1920, media censorship and downright lies were the norm as the U.S. government attempted to keep morale high in the midst of World War I. Other combatant countries, including France and Germany, had similar wartime policies. Even the name “Spanish flu” is a misnomer — a name that stuck after Spain, which was neutral in the conflict and had a free and open press, became the first country to report on the disease.

The actual origins of the Spanish flu are still uncertain. One theory suggests it originated on a military base in Kansas, while another theory gaining traction is that it started, like COVID-19, in a live animal market in China. The close quarters of wartime trenches and military encampments enabled the disease to spread quickly, going on to kill more people in a year than AIDS has killed in 40 years, and more than the bubonic plague killed in a century. In the United States, some 670,000 people died. Yet even as death tolls rose, one U.S. official dismissed the virus as “ordinary influenza by another name.”

“Some of them told outright lies, some of them simply misled,” Barry said of public health officials at the time. “As a general rule, there were very misleading statements in an effort to reassure. The Chicago public health director said, ‘Nothing is done to interfere with the morale of the community.’ And what that meant was, basically he lied every time he made a statement.”

The response from President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t much better.

“They didn’t have a strategy,” Barry said of the Wilson White House. “There was no evidence that anyone ever sat down and tried to come up with a national strategy of how to deal with the pandemic.”

Instead, a policy of optimism and suppression of negative news was pushed vigorously in the hopes of calming a concerned nation.

“It had exactly the opposite effect,” Barry said.

Lack of information led to fear and suspicion, while downplaying the Spanish flu’s lethality resulted in more deaths. During the height of the pandemic, one parade in Philadelphia — the largest in the city’s history — was allowed to proceed despite pleas from concerned local doctors. Shortly afterward, 12,000 Philadelphians died in six weeks.

Now, as the coronavirus becomes a worldwide threat, Barry points to reactions from officials in other countries where lack of transparency has exacerbated the problem.

“You’ve got places like Iran, which behaved exactly like the government did in 1918,” Barry said. “They lied, they didn’t monitor, they hadn’t done anything until it’s too late.”

While China has since taken aggressive quarantine measures that have slowed the outbreak there, Chinese officials were initially hostile toward those who tried to expose the virus’s threat. The first Wuhan doctors who reported the outbreak were arrested and accused of spreading rumors. One of those doctors, Li Wenliang, later died of COVID-19.

“They hid it for a matter of weeks, and those were pretty important weeks,” Barry said of China’s response. “In terms of the possibility of actually containing the virus, that opportunity had been missed.

“I don’t know that anyone could have actually moved fast enough to contain it, but they missed the opportunity.”