LIVING A DIFFERENT IRONY, BUT THE SAME AGONY, AS THE SPANISH FLU
LONDON — This is the part of the story that I cannot get over, the magical part that is hard to believe, even now. In December of 1918, in the middle of the deadliest pandemic in history, which had taken more lives in their South Philadelphia neighborhood than any other American city, my parents did something profoundly hopeful in the face of tragedy.
They got married.
The Spanish Flu gave 20-year-old Walter Weiss and 18-year-old Anne Lubin about a month before challenging the “in sickness and in health” part of their wedding vows. One late January morning, my father woke up with a tickle in his throat. When he came home from work, he was hot to my mother’s touch. For the next six weeks, my mother took care of my dad as he suffered the high fever, violent coughing, and full body pain of the deadly respiratory disease that would take 675,000 American lives and more than 50 million worldwide.
The love that my mother showed in nursing my father back to health became an important part of our family lore and led me to believe that whatever strength I was gifted with came from her. When she told the story years later, there were two things about the Great Influenza that my mother could never get over, one an irony and the other an agony — which sound disturbingly familiar to us today.
The irony is that the “Spanish Flu” had little to do with Spain. The likely origin of the virus is that it jumped from farm animals to humans in the midwestern U.S. and spread as Americans went to fight in World War I. It hit the U.S., France, and Britain first, but because wartime censors in all three nations muffled talk of the virus to spare a war-weary public, it fell to news outlets in Spain, neutral in the war, to report on it. Naturally, Westerners assumed the virus originated there. Ironically, it is remembered as the Spanish Flu because Spain alone told the truth.
By contrast, my mother’s agony was that millions of people caught the virus in part because they were lied to, especially during the early days, when telling the truth could have made a difference in the ability of people to protect themselves. It’s a lesson that resonates more than ever today, as millions of people in America and across the world become infected with a virus that too many leaders — again — lied about and continue to lie about. If the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has the same impact today that the Spanish Flu had a century ago, our world is headed for a sustained tragedy.
The first known case of the Spanish Flu was recorded in the winter of 1917–18 when a young soldier at Camp Funston in central Kansas came down with a fever. Within two weeks, 1,100 men were infected. While it spread to two-thirds of the country’s major military bases, it remained mild and national attention remained with the war.
By early September, soldiers began turning up in military hospitals with “the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen.” Many ran blazing fevers and coughed up blood, their faces tinged blue from lack of oxygen. Quickly and in terrifying numbers, they began to die.
But in cities, the plague barely registered. In mid-September, a Navy ship from Boston carried the influenza to Philadelphia. As John M. Barry writes in the masterful, The Great Influenza, when cases were first reported at the city’s Navy Yard (which sat just a few miles south of my boyhood home), Philadelphia’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, quarantined them and urged calm, stating, “No concern whatever is felt.” The next day, when two had died, Krusen assured Philadelphians that they had died not of the Spanish Flu but of “old-fashioned influenza or grip.” Another health official declared, “From now on the disease will decrease.”
The next day, two deaths became fifteen. Cases jumped from the Navy Yard into the surrounding neighborhoods, and then across the city. Doctors treating victims tried to sound the alarm, but officials remained nonchalant.
On September 28, a massive “Liberty Loan Parade” had been scheduled for the war effort. More than 200,000 people, including my parents, would crowd Philadelphia’s Broad Street. Recognizing the enormous risk, doctors urged Krusen to cancel the parade, arguing it was “a ready-made inflammable mass for conflagration.” He refused. Doctors convinced journalists to write stories about it, but Krusen persuaded editors not to run them. City official insisted all was safe. The parade went on as scheduled.
Three days later, Philadelphia was engulfed. Every hospital bed in the city was filled. Still, Krusen cautioned the public not to be “panic stricken over exaggerated reports,” and newspapers followed, as the Philadelphia Inquirer blared, “Scientific Nursing Halting Epidemic.” Belatedly, local officials tried to shut down schools and ban public gatherings.
But it was too late. In one day, 759 Philadelphians died. Within two weeks, it was 4,500. Within six weeks, nearly 12,00 had died.
My father, thankfully, was spared that fate, but many were not. The cemeteries I passed on my way to school were full of mothers and fathers who weren’t as lucky as mine. Those graves held a lesson: When politicians lie about public health emergencies, people suffer and die.
Krusen surely knew he would have been fired or imprisoned had he cancelled the parade: under the Sedition Act of 1918, anybody who either spoke out against the war or incited the public faced up to 20 years in jail. As a doctor, that shouldn’t have mattered to him, but that’s probably why he lied.
A century later, it’s hard to say that Chinese President Xi Jinping had an equally good excuse to do the same. As happens so often in history, those who don’t learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them, and 2020 is repeating the same mistakes of 1918.
When news of a SARS-like respiratory illness first surfaced in Wuhan, China last November, the Chinese government clamped down — not on the disease, but on the truth, banning publication of information on the disease. Though its doctors had evidence of human-to-human transmission, officials publicly denied the possibility for more than a month and a half. On January 18, with echoes of the Philadelphia parade, 40,000 families in Wuhan were allowed to gather for a Lunar New Year potluck. Two days later, the number of infected soared, and the pandemic was set in motion.
The first case in the U.S. was discovered on January 20 in Washington state, when an individual who had returned from Wuhan showed up at an urgent care clinic presenting flu-like symptoms. President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on foreign nationals who had traveled to China from entering the U.S. and insisted, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
By early February, one case had become a dozen. President Trump urged calm, telling the public that the disease would likely “go away in April.” Two weeks later, the president confidently insisted that the virus would disappear completely “like a miracle.” He then asserted the virus was a Democratic hoax, that it was “very mild,” and that the World Health Organization’s estimated global mortality rate was “a false number.”
The same denial was repeated from Italy to Iran, with deadly results. Now, we find ourselves with another global pandemic — with more than two million infected as of this writing, 22 million out of work in the U.S. alone wiping out a decade of job gains, America leading the global casualty list, the global economy headed toward a likely depression, and no end in sight. And it has yet to really hit Africa. I’m facing the reality that I may never see my children or grandchildren in person ever again.
And for what? Because leaders in China were warned that its “wet markets” that sold bats as food were a coronavirus time bomb waiting to happen — and let them stay open anyway — if indeed that’s how the virus started? Because Xi knew the virus would spread like wildfire, knew it couldn’t be contained without quarantine — but chose to lie to the world anyway? Because the WHO didn’t want to cross China by telling the truth about the virus to the world — an act so egregious that President Trump has halted U.S. funding of the WHO pending a review of its actions?
Once again, the shadows of 1918 are long, with both irony and agony. This time, the irony is different: rather than associating the name of the virus with a country that had little to do with starting it as happened with the Spanish flu, we are consciously avoiding calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” (although Trump calls it the “Chinese virus”) for mostly politically correct reasons — even though accurately identifying how it started is the first step toward ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
But the agony, like the pain of the sick and dying, is the same: where telling the truth could have saved lives, the Chinese and WHO leaders lied, and continue to lie. What my mother would say is that it’s never too late to do the right thing: if 1918 is any guide, this virus will be with us for a long time, and we need to be able to trust that our leaders will listen to the experts and do what’s necessary, however difficult that may be.
At least one city has learned the lesson of 1918: shortly after news of the virus first leaked out of China, the public health commissioner in Philadelphia sprang into action, coordinating a local response that made sure my hometown was ready.
While there have been some Philadelphians infected to date, and some local deaths, the City of Brotherly Love is getting through the pandemic of 2020 as well as any other large city — for better or for worse.