Book about 1918 pandemic has current parallels

Published 10:03 pm Wednesday, July 1, 2020

By John Howell, Sr.

Publisher Emeritus

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I’ve been reading (actually listening to an audiobook from the library) John M. Barry’s book on the 1918 flu pandemic and found several interesting parallels to 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic.

Barry is a renowned New Orleans writer who has enjoyed a distinction of having two of his books return to the New York Times bestseller list years after their initial publication. “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” rose to the NYT bestseller list soon after its publication in 1997.

Barry’s extensive work described how events and decisions starting with the first French colonists in Louisiana and continuing today not only influenced the catastrophic outcome in 1927, but also subsequent coastal flooding and erosion that threatens the Gulf Coast increasingly each year.

Rising Tide was driven back onto the bestseller list after New Orleans levees failed and the city flooded following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In 2004, Barry published “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History.”

It is an exhaustive and fascinating chronicle of developments in medicine, history and politics that came together to kill an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide in 1918-1919.

The current pandemic has attracted sufficient reader interest to put that book back onto the bestseller list in 2020, and made its author the go-to authority in media circles.

From what he describes, the year 2020 to date roughly resembles the year 1918, the first year of what came to be known as the Spanish flu (though Barry and many historians trace the first recorded cases back to Army recruits at Ft. Riley Kansas in early 1918).

By June of that year, the flu had spread throughout the world, facilitated by the mass mobilizations of armies and movements of troops across Europe, North America and to European colonies around the globe.

Then, as now, medical authorities inside and outside of government found themselves in conflict with political officials. The U.S. was in the midst of its mass mobilization of manpower for the war in Europe, and negative news about a pandemic or anything else was kept from the public to keep from hurting morale.

Like the COVID-19 pandemic we are watching, treatments were tried, found to be ineffective and discarded. What we now call social distancing was misunderstood and resisted, and mask use was mostly limited to a few medical facilities, primarily on military bases.

But, as the summer of 1918 wore on, cases began to decline, prompting local and national political leaders in Europe and the U.S. to proclaim that the end of the pandemic was near.

The flu virus as well as other diseases that attack the respiratory system seldom kill the patient. Instead, it weakens the immune system’s ability to fight off pneumonia, known then as now as the “captain of death.”

During the late summer of 1918, the pneumonia that often attacked weakened flu victims took a virulent turn, sometimes killing its victims on the same day that they first exhibited symptoms.

Barry’s account reports one hospital after another overflowing with dead and dying, bleeding from noses, mouths and ears as their lungs hemorrhaged from the lethal pneumonia.

That’s where I hope the parallels between this COVID-19 and the 1918 flu end. Thus far, it may be as contagious as the 1918 flu, but less lethal, especially to ages 21 to 40, the age group that was so ravaged 102 years ago.

I’m about halfway through the tome at this writing. I hope that by the time I finish the end of this pandemic will be near, but the more I read the more skeptical I become.

John may be reached at