Well, until a couple of decades ago, historians wrote only about what people did to people. It was very unusual for historians to write about what nature did to people. Another thing is because of the war and the infrastructure of propaganda that [President] Wilson had created, newspapers didn’t write about it. And if they did, it was some relatively inconsequential article.
We expect this pandemic to change us in ways we don’t even conceive of yet. How did the 1918 flu change the way people lived and society overall?
I think it contributed to the culture of the Roaring Twenties, the idea that, you know, let’s not worry about tomorrow, a sense of fatalism. I think it contributed to that mood. Fitzgerald wrote, “All gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” It was part of the ennui that came over this country. But in terms of actual daily life changes, I don’t think there was anything measurable. It lasted a very short period, and people were distracted by the war then. Two million soldiers came home from Europe. Another two million had exited Army training camps.
Is fatalism and living for the day something you could foresee following the coronavirus pandemic?
Well, 1918 was more lethal. And it also killed otherwise healthy young people. The peak age for death was 28. You had a significant chunk of people in their 20s and early 30s die in a period of weeks. So that changes the way you look at the world.
As you’ve watched the coronavirus pandemic unfold, what’s been going through your mind?
Well, I mean, it’s predictable. In the middle of January you could see pretty much what was going to happen. Anybody who understood anything about virology and pandemics, you know, it was obvious. You did not need an intelligence briefing to figure it out.
How would you characterize the United States’s response to the pandemic?
In a local paper I gave Trump a 3.5 a couple of days ago, but I was being overly generous.
3.5 out of what?
Ten. The first few months it was hugely disappointing to see him trivialize this outbreak. A few weeks ago he suddenly took it seriously and said we were at war. That was important. Since then, he’s up and down. The positive is, he does seem to take it seriously. He still is telling people to keep apart, and that’s important. But obviously he gives out inaccurate information on a daily basis. I was part of the groups that did preparedness planning for pandemics in the [George W.] Bush administration, and in those groups we discussed the importance of who the spokesperson should be. Because getting compliance from the public obviously is crucial if you’re going to get social distancing and compliance with your recommendations. And we were unanimous that it should not be any politician, not the president, not secretary of HHS, not even CDC. But the reason was that any politician would start out with a significant chunk of the public not trusting him, not believing him.
A hundred years from now when a historian is writing a history of the 2020 pandemic, what do you think will be its overarching theme?
If they’re writing about the United States, it would be the incomprehensibly incoherent response. Every country seems to have had a different response. Some of them quite good. Some are not so good.
What do you think was the most important lesson learned from the 1918 pandemic?
Tell the truth.
Did we learn that lesson?
This interview has been edited and condensed. Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Barry’s age.