The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Though I did have the foresight to stockpile northern books, I set aside my North reading list pretty swiftly after entering home quarantine with my kids, husband and dog. We’re all doing fine, thanks.

John M. Barry published The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, in 2004. His account of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” took seven years to write and is definitive. 

The book is heavy on science. The first few chapters talk about viruses, and this virus in particular, in great detail. This book is also heavy on scientists, and is in part a group biography of several leading medical scientists of the day — many of whom were laying the foundation for modern medicine. I skimmed freely through this part, though doctors and nurses might find it more interesting. 

Eventually, Barry gets to the pandemic, which swarmed out of control all over the world for several weeks in the fall of 1918, and again in 1919, leaving somewhere between 50 and 100 million people dead. The numbers are truly astounding. Estimating them is a science of its own; grasping them a layperson is really just not possible. “Somewhere between 5 and 9 percent of all young adults died.” 

The virus moved swiftly, often killing people within two days of infection. Labrador lost about one third of its population. Alaskan villages were literally wiped out (a relief effort, dispatched slightly too late, made this discovery). In Europe, “Italy suffered the worst,” Barry writes, without further comment. Hmm.

As for elsewhere: “The virus simply ravaged the less developed world.” 

I was reading this book (I discovered) to learn more about how societies react and it’s about how you might expect. Lots of people stay home, afraid to volunteer, afraid even to look after neighbour’s children. Others step up: nursing, cooking, driving, helping. 

When does the looting begin? I found myself wondering. Answer: it just doesn’t. (Though everything else in that Matt Damon film “Contagion” is more or less accurate.) 

What about class warfare? Even though there was a difference in death and infection rates among the poor, the virus still struck down everyone, Barry writes, and even in places where local government collapsed, the groups that took over (a Phoenix citizen’s committee; rich people in Philadelphia) “generally exercised their power to protect the entire community rather than to split it, to distribute resources more widely rather than to guarantee resources for themselves.”

Phew!

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t huge societal breakdown in between. Barry pins that on one factor: government lying to the public. 

In 1918, the media and politicians horribly underplayed the threat of flu, in part because they were already underplaying the horrific impact of World War One on a daily basis. Under wartime censorship, terrifying people in the news just wasn’t tolerated, thus many newspapers published NOTHING about the flu, even as bodies were literally piling up in the streets. There was also a strong sentiment at the time (not by any means behind us) that the public couldn’t handle bad news, so stories that were published often led with the helpful advice: “Don’t panic!”

The discord between what people were reading and what they were seeing with their own eyes must have been terrifying. This cost many lives, Barry says, first by causing people to continue to mix freely, spreading the illness. And later, by the time governments and leaders were ready to face up to what was happening, it was too late. Nobody believed them. 

“How prepared are we now?” Barry asks in his afterward, writing sometime in 2004.

“A severe influenza pandemic would hit like a tsunami, inundating intensive-care units even as doctors and nurses fall ill themselves and generally pushing the health care system to the point of collapse and possibly beyond it … In a pandemic, most people who needed a mechanical respirator probably would not get one.” 

It’s chilling to read how predictable this event was. Even more chilling than this Bill Gates’ TED Talk

Another big risk Barry saw is the character of those who may confront a pandemic. He recommends writing down a plan, so that when a virus arrives, we can follow the plan instead of letting weak, abusive, ignorant or just poorly-equipped elected officials make choices that could doom thousands or millions. 

Ultimately, he writes, a universal flu vaccine is the only solution. 

[I also learned that people who took to bed the earliest after feeling symptoms seemed to have had the best survival rates. And don’t get up right away if you feel better; you might end up dying of pneumonia.]

You’ve probably heard mention that there are few accounts of the 1918 pandemic. It’s actually incredible. I checked my Penguin History of the 20th Century. It’s 850 pages long. I found one footnote on the pandemic. It’s one sentence long, and not mentioned in the index.

There are even fewer artistic accounts. Hemingway, John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all writing at this time: none mentioned it. (Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter gets a mention as one of the few fictional treatments of what life was like at that time, and is now on my reading list.)

Some speculate that few wrote about the flu because of how unpleasant it was, how ugly it was to turn away from a friend or neighbour, both afraid of them and not trusting yourself either. My friend Sarah Swan has a different explanation — that artists can’t create under in the pressure cooker of uncertainty and isolation. Why should they?

Though I’m loath to introduce what is effectively a medical textbook into my otherwise unmarred northern reading list, I’m reviewing this book so that the historical record shows how our lives broke in half in 2020.

2 thoughts on “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

  1. Thanks for this review. I agree with your friend Sarah. I recently left my day job, thinking I’d have more time for some writing. But I can’t really imagine doing that right now. Do you write about what’s happening now? Do you write about this? About after this? About before this? You can’t ignore this, but it’s too soon to know how it all turns out.

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  2. thanks for this one! I’ll try to read it. I especially like the observation that artists struggle to create during times of uncertainty. You, paradoxically, as a writer-artist, seem to be inspired:) Keep it up.

    kate

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