COVID-19 Day 46: The Second Casualty is Trust – Epilogue

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“You had one job, Kyle.”

As an epilogue to my essay “In a pandemic, the second casualty is trust”, I share this excerpt from the Nov. 2017 article in Smithsonian Magazine. John Barry, historian and author of a detailed account of the 1918 Spanish Flu, “The Great Influenza”was invited to take part in a pandemic wargame. These wargames are conducted by health and governmental agencies on a regular basis (or should have been) as a means of ‘planning for the worst’. The story John Barry tells reminds us that our plans have to take account of the failings of human nature. 

…the most important lesson from 1918 is, to tell the truth. Though that idea is incorporated into every preparedness plan I know of, its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.

I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles involving area public health officials. Before the exercise began, I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.

Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.

The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. What did he do? He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.

I was stunned. This official had not actually told a lie, but he had deliberately minimized the danger; whether or not this particular patient had the disease, a pandemic was coming. The official’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press or even acknowledge the pandemic’s inevitability meant that citizens would look elsewhere for answers, and probably find a lot of bad ones. Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.

And that was only a game.”

From Smithsonian Magazine, “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America”



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