- - Monday, March 15, 2021

One year after the rhythms of daily life were upended by the unchecked spread of an invisible, deadly pathogen, Americans have a degree of optimism that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind them.

Glimmers of hope are mixing with dark realities, however. Even as the country’s vaccination pace has accelerated to two million doses per day, more than fifteen hundred Americans are succumbing to the virus each day, bringing the total death count above 530,000.

March 2020 is remembered as the watershed moment in this awful chapter of human existence. The outbreak occurred in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, but it was not until March when reality imposed itself, forcing public officials to shut down public venues and schools as well as private businesses and church gatherings. Almost no aspect of life has been the same since.

The misery caused by so many deaths and illnesses was compounded by political hostilities that seemed to accompany the virus from the moment it arrived in America, hindering the federal response to what would have been a monumental challenge in the best of circumstances.

President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed the virus would simply disappear, and he contradicted the advice of his administration’s top health officials by encouraging protesters in Democratic-led states to defy virus-related restrictions. Mr. Trump also publicly backed unproven cures such as hydroxychloroquine and subjecting the body to ultraviolet light and chemical disinfectants.

In short, the spring of 2020 was a chaotic and scary time for Americans who watched the death toll skyrocket, their jobs disappear and their trust in one another evaporate.

To historian John Barry, the author of ‘The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,’ his award-winning book about the 1918 flu pandemic, COVID-19 evokes painful similarities and important differences with last century’s public health crisis. (In an op-ed written last March, Barry foresaw with astonishing accuracy what was coming).

For starters, the 1918 strain was far more virulent and deadly than COVID-19, killing at least 50 million people worldwide, according to conservative estimates, and 675,000 people in the United States, whose population was about 100 million. And unlike Mr. Trump, who for a while held daily press briefings, President Woodrow Wilson said nothing publicly about the virus — not one single statement.

“He was involved in decisions to send troops overseas and he was advised not to do that, because the troopships were like floating coffins. But he said, nope, if you die on a troopship it is like dying on the front line. We’re at war,” said Barry in an interview for the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast.

“Immunity did develop, so if he had sent troops from training camps where the disease had already passed, they would very likely not get sick on board ship. He was asked to at least rearrange the shipping schedule… and he wouldn’t even do that,” said Barry, who is a distinguished scholar at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

With almost no federal leadership, and the nation preoccupied fighting the First World War, it fell to local authorities to take action once the second wave of the virus struck the U.S. in the fall of 1918. Public officials and newspapers, however, continued to dispense worthless advice even as the corpses piled up.

In Philadelphia, where mass graves were dug to deal with the soaring toll, city leaders belatedly closed theaters, schools, and saloons, Barry said, but one of the major newspapers still advised readers there was still no cause for alarm.

“The readers knew this was utter nonsense, because their neighbor or spouse was not only dying, but some were dying with horrific symptoms. And sometimes they were dying in less than 24 hours,” said Barry, who has served on multiple federal boards addressing influenza preparedness. People took it upon themselves to maintain social distancing in lieu of consistent or reliable information from civic leaders. 

Barry said President Trump deserves credit for authorizing “Operation: Warp Speed” to develop vaccines, but he criticized the former president for having spent months offering misleading and politicized claims, often contradicting the advice of the government’s best scientists.

“Look at the country’s that have done the best [in suppressing the virus and protecting life] like Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. You can say those countries aren’t like us culturally, so we couldn’t have done that here. But what about Australia?” said Barry, who said Australia is as culturally similar to the United States as any other country.

“Australia has had 909 deaths total. They’ve had four deaths since the middle of October. If you adjust for population, their death toll would equal about 12,000 in the United States,” said Barry. “The difference was leadership.” 

For more of John Barry’s remarks about COVID-19 and the 1918 influenza pandemic, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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