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Back to the Future of the Pandemic

There is nothing older than yesterday’s newspapers — we know pretty much all that was said, and there is not much to discover there. But a newspaper from a century ago could be full of ‘breaking news’ for today’s readers. It allows us to access not just the events of yesteryear, but the way those events were perceived by the people living through them.

We now know, for example, that the First World War ended on November 11, 1918, but for a soldier in the trenches in August 1918 the future wasn’t known. That soldier in the middle of the carnage and the stench of death of his trench in didn’t have any idea when the nightmare would be over.

And probably that soldier was also worried about the Spanish influenza that was starting to make the rounds. We are not in the middle of a world war, but we have something in common with him. We don’t know how this pandemic will end — or when. And we don’t know to what extent we are going to be back to normal at any point or if our lives are already changed forever. Reading the press doesn’t help. One day you hear that a vaccine will be ready in 18 months or next August, and the following day they say we may never get a vaccine. What is really going to happen? We don’t know, of course. That’s the source of our anguish.

But we certainly could consider what happened the last time we had a pandemic. The Library of Congress has a section on its website called “Chronicling America.” It is a searchable database containing millions of historic newspaper page published between 1789 and 1963. During the last two months, I have gone back to the papers of the Spanish influenza pandemic period. The most surprising fact I have found is how quickly the plague faded from popular imagination. In a previous column, I mentioned how the Spanish flu hardly appears in the American literature of the 1920s. But a look at the newspaper database also reveals how fast it disappeared from the daily news.

In the Chronicling America database, you can find 12,360 newspaper pages mentioning Spanish influenza in 1918. But in 1919 the flu appears in just 2,880 pages, and by 1923 it was hardly mentioned at all: just eight newspaper pages that year contain the phrase “Spanish influenza.”

The brutal death toll of the first months — millions of people worldwide, 50 million in a year or so — and the speed of the spreading — a third of the world population contracted the virus in a few months — produced a high level of immunity in a short period.

As I write this column, 3.5 million people have contracted the novel coronavirus worldwide and almost a quarter of a million have died as victims of COVID-19. Those are horrendous numbers, but they clearly pale in comparison with the numbers of the 1918 plague.

But the rather quickly demise of the Spanish flu pandemic from the news and popular imagination was probably a direct result of its horrendous levels of infection and mortality in 1918. The measures taken by governments worldwide this time around have crippled their economies and probably will lengthen the period we will have to live with the COVID-19 menace. But they were taken in order to save millions upon millions of lives.

In the coming weeks, we will see a constant debate about the reopening of our economy. Our local, state, and federal officials will have to make the most important decisions they would probably make in their whole lives. They will be confronted with the grim alternative of saving lives and prolonging an economic collapse the likes of which we have never seen.

When we start going back to our ‘normal’ lives, we will have a new, all-important responsibility. Each of us, by following the rules of the ‘new normal’ will be responsible for each other’s lives on a daily basis like never before.

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