COVID-19 Day 44: In a Pandemic, the First Casualty is Truth

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  -Santayana

In an effort to understand COVID-19 many have looked for insights from the 1918 Spanish Flu. Worldwide, between 20 million and as many as 100 million people perished from an unusually deadly strain of influenza virus. In the century since, we have made quantum leaps in medical knowledge. One learns more from failure more than success.

An oft-cited story from the 1918 pandemic is the effectiveness of lockdowns and social distancing is the story of Philadelphia and St. Louis parades. Philadelphia held a parade during the pandemic, whilst St. Luis, canceled their parade, banned public events, and closed schools. Weeks later, 4800 people had died of the flue in Philadelphia, while less than half that number perished in St. Luis.  

But one of the least known lessons of the Spanish Flu is how news was suppressed and manipulated. The pandemic occurred during the height of World War I. Returning soldiers and war-wounded brought back the virus from Europe, where the pandemic was widespread. But due to war-news censorship, the only news was of the epidemic in neutral Spain, creating a false-perception of the origin of the virus and its name. Coincidentally, like COVID-19, the 1918 flu’s origins may trace back to China, but not the only similarity as we shall see. 

The US entering WWI was far from universally popular in normally isolationist-America. And siding with Britain and France caused some tension among German-Americans. To counter public and journalistic opposition to the war, Wilson urged Congress to pass the Sedition Act.

The Sedition Act made it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State…or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of anything or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Violators could be imprisoned for up to 20 years! This law would be considered a sweeping violation of the 1st amendment today, and was repealed by Congress after the end of the war, in 1920. But during the 1918 pandemic this wartime law would have dire and unintended consequences.

In an attempt to mobilize public opinion behind the war effort, President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the US government’s first official propaganda agency. One advisor to the CPI wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms…The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” 

The CPI suppressed any negative news they deemed detrimental to public morale or the morale of troops in Europe. Journalists or individuals raising alarm about a mysterious new epidemic sweeping the cities were threatened with prosecution through the Sedition Act. As fears of Spanish Flu rose along with its death toll, the CPI encouraged public health officials to lie.

The U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.”

New York City’s public health director declared, “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza…[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.”

The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

Contrast this to today’s COVID-19 headlines:

New York City Mayor De Blasio tweeted, “Since I’m encouraging New Yorkers to go on with your lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus…”

President Trump tweeted on February 24, 2020, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA…”

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said in San Francisco, “…everything is fine here,.. Come because precautions have been taken. The city is on top of the situation.”

The World Health Organization tweeted on January 14, 2020, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in Wuhan, China

Those quotes are over 100 years apart, share a surprisingly similar tone and misinformation. Whether misguided by good intentions or motivated by ass-covering, whatever the reason, its results were similarly catastrophic. The public didn’t take the danger seriously and failed to prepare. Leaders lied and people died.

In the midst of our pandemic, now is not the time for recrimination. Blaming China or our leaders won’t keep people from getting infected, ease suffering, or prevent death. Our energies are better focused on finding treatments and practical strategies.

As our leaders propose new locked-down ordinances for ‘public safety,’ or plans to return the population back to work, I hope these revelations from a hundred years ago continue to serve as a warning. If we are doomed to repeat history then I hope we are blessed to repeat their successes as well.


SOURCES

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/

In an article for Smithsonian Magazine containing excerpts from his book The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, https://amzn.to/2xFiDnH

https://www.cdc.gov/csels/dsepd/ss1978/lesson1/section11.html

https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1179/committee-on-public-information

https://www.pnas.org/content/104/18/7582

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