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John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza”: Reading about a Pandemic during a Pandemic

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Note: I am not a medical or science professional in any way. The article below is my personal response to the experience of reading a very topical book and comparing it to my lived experience. Please monitor reliable sources, including the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control (U.S.) for timely information about the COVID-19 outbreak.

I’ve had The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry out from the library for about 2 weeks…and a lucky thing too, since as I write this all of my local libraries are closed for at least two weeks. First I thought I might read it, then I finally started reading it, then, as the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in the United States, I started binge reading it.  I didn’t think it was a good idea to go out anyway. 

Reading a book about a pandemic during a pandemic is actually a much better idea than it might seem at first.  First of all, I can see how much institutional knowledge we have going into this pandemic that we did not in 1918.  I really had not connected the dots before and realized how recently germ theory had become practice in 1918, and furthering the problem is that fact that there were still practicing doctors, and available retired doctors, who did not completely accept it.  The effectiveness of wearing face masks was actually discovered during this pandemic. Can you imagine living in a world where the importance of basic hygiene was not known?  Sometimes I wonder not why so many people died, but how so many people lived? 

Of course, it should be obvious that one other huge obstacle that they were facing in 1918 that we, thank God, are not, is that the United States and much of Europe was fully mobilized for a major war.  It seems that while the United States took its time deciding to join World War 1, once it finally did, it held nothing back.  Unfortunately, especially given the fact that the war was about to end anyway when the epidemic began, the United States could not or did not manage to divert the machine before it was too late.  Military authority held precedence over health authority, so troop transfers were at first unabated.  The U.S. armed forces had also rushed troops into hastily built and grossly overcrowded facilities, which made stopping the spread of the illness impossible once it began.

Another difference between the 1918 pandemic and the 2020 pandemic is who is affected.  As I write this, the people with serious cases of COVID-19 are those who have other health issues or are already immune compromised.  In 1918, however, the illness frequently attacked young adults, which meant that people with the chief responsibility for keeping things functioning, including health personnel, could suddenly be stricken and then sometimes died within hours.  Pregnant women were often victims, which meant the loss of the fetus but also increased the chance that previously born children were left motherless. 

So reading this book does not make me fearful.  It makes me thankful.  Thankful for many things.  Most people with COVID-19 actually get light cases, which is a curse in that symptoms may go undiagnosed, but a blessing in that most people recover. Obviously I’m thankful that we are not in a major war and also that we do have better provisions in place for protecting people’s health worldwide.

One of the most important things I learned that calmed any fears I have is that the COVID-19 outbreak is part of a natural cycle of influenza viruses. Prior to reading this book, I knew that influenza constantly mutates, but I didn’t understand the part about the cycles.  I can’t say I completely understand it now, but I get the idea.  And it fits, you know?  Everything in nature has a pattern.

 The last thing I learned from this book is the most important, and as I sit writing this article, it is the thing on my mind.  Where the biggest disasters happened is where authorities did not insist that events be cancelled and people stay home. 

 In the United States, I see the governments for the most part making decisions involving government organizations well, including the drastic measure of closing all of the schools.  As the same time, I see restaurants, bars, gyms, and cinemas continue to stay open. 

I know that people are worried about paying their bills and that businesses are worried about surviving, and of course there are people whose jobs are essential work. But there are also people just doing what they want because they don’t think they are vulnerable.

I personally feel no fear of this virus at all.  I have an age and health status that excludes me from the likelihood of a serious case, and health advice for me is to stay home, even if I feel sick.  But what about those who are not?  If you go out and have fun tonight, how do you know you won’t unwittingly pass something to someone in the grocery store?  What if you are called on to help someone at risk.  If this illness spreads, who will be healthy enough to keep necessities running? 

So reading a pandemic book during a pandemic has given me peace, but also shown me the importance of doing my part.

As the Hippocratic oath says, “First, do no harm.”

The Single Most Important Lesson From the 1918 Influenza from The New York Times, by John M. Barry, the author of The Great Influenza. Published by the Times March 17, 2020.

Also Rampant Lies, Fake Cures and Not Enough Beds: What the Spanish Flu Debacle Can Teach Us About Coronavirus from Politico, by Joshua Zeitz, March 17, 2020.

Cover Photo Credit


Giving treatment to influenza patient at the U.S. Naval Hospital. New Orleans, Louisiana, Circa 1918; NH-60309.(flickr)

2 thoughts on “John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza”: Reading about a Pandemic during a Pandemic”

  1. Very true! Nothing like learning the past to understand the present and future. I’m also not scared about contracting the virus, but I fear for my elderly parents and the elderly community in general. Great article. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I am concerned as well. I’m lucky enough not to need to interact much, and I want to be ready to help out if I’m needed.

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