The first wave wasn’t that bad. In the spring of 1918, a new strain of influenza hit military camps in Europe on both sides of World War I. Soldiers were affected, but not nearly as severely as they would be later.
Spain, on the other hand, was a neutral country in the war. When the disease hit there, the government and newspapers reported it accurately. Even the king got sick.
So months later, when a bigger, deadlier wave swept across the globe, it seemed like it had started in Spain, even though it hadn’t. Simply because the Spanish told the truth, the virus was dubbed the “Spanish flu.”
“They [the Trump administration] are clearly trying to put the best possible gloss on things, and are trying to control information,” said John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” in a phone interview with The Washington Post.
When the second wave of Spanish flu hit globally, “there was outright censorship” in Europe, Barry said. “In the United States, they didn’t quite do that, but there was intense pressure not to say anything negative.”
News about the war was carefully controlled by the Committee on Public Information, an independent federal agency whose architect, publicist Arthur Bullard, once said, “The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”
The CPI released thousands of positive stories about the war effort, and newspapers often republished them verbatim. So when the Spanish flu spread across the United States in the fall of 1918, both the government and the media continued the same rosy strategy “to keep morale up.”
President Woodrow Wilson released no public statements. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.” Another top health official, Barry said, dismissed it as “ordinary influenza by another name.”
But it wasn’t. The Spanish flu had a mortality rate of 2 percent — much higher than seasonal influenza strains, and similar to some early estimates about the coronavirus.
It also differed in who it killed. Seasonal flu tends to be worst for the very young and very old. The Spanish flu was deadliest in young adults.
Such as soldiers crowded into military camps.
For the most part, the media followed the government’s lead and self-censored dire news. That made everything worse, Barry said.
For example, in Philadelphia, local officials were planning the largest parade in the city’s history. Just before the scheduled event, about 300 returning soldiers started spreading the virus in the city.
“And basically every doctor, they were telling reporters the parade shouldn’t happen. The reporters were writing the stories; editors were killing them,” he said. “The Philadelphia papers wouldn’t print anything about it.”
The parade was held and, 48 hours later, Spanish flu slammed the city. Even once schools were closed and public gatherings were banned, city officials claimed it wasn’t a public health measure and there was no cause for alarm, Barry said.
Philadelphia became one of the hardest hit areas of the country. The dead lay in their beds and on the streets for days; eventually, they were buried in mass graves. More than 12,500 residents died, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
If a newspaper reported the truth, the government threatened it. The Jefferson County Union in Wisconsin warned about the seriousness of the flu on Sept. 27, 1918. Within days, an Army general began prosecution against the paper under a wartime sedition act, claiming it had “depressed morale.”
As the pandemic raged through October of that year, Americans could see with their own eyes that the “absurd reassurances” coming from local and national officials weren’t true. This crisis of credibility led to wild rumors about bogus cures and unnecessary precautions, Barry said.
The Spanish flu ultimately killed about 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even President Wilson caught it, in the middle of negotiations to end the Great War.
“I think the No. 1 lesson that came out of the experience is that if you want to prevent panic, you tell the truth,” Barry said.
In 2005 and 2006, Barry contributed as a subject-matter expert to an influenza pandemic plan created by the CDC. He said he felt it was his job to beat the “tell the truth, tell the truth” drum.
Now, with coronavirus, Barry said he’s “a little bit worried” about the plan being followed. He doesn’t think the Trump administration is “outright lying, but they’re definitely giving you interpretations that seem to be the best-case scenarios.”
He’s particularly concerned about President Trump’s decision to have Vice President Pence oversee the response, instead of an expert such as Anthony Fauci, the doctor who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
Given the credibility crisis that happened with the 1918 pandemic, Barry said that was “the exact wrong thing to do.”
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