Don’t say we weren’t warned. As President Trump’s subversion of science wreaks havoc with American society, the reappearance on bestseller lists of John Barry’s 2004 classic work, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” is a reminder that presidential irrationality is not unprecedented. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Barry joins host Robert Scheer to compare the two pandemics and the United States’ response to each. Back in 1918, Woodrow Wilson was deprived of the jingoism card played by Trump in labeling the current worldwide scourge “the China virus” because the first wave of massive fatalities was exported from a huge military base in Kansas.
In 1917, having dropped out of college and moved to New York with her family, Dorothy Day took her first New York job, with a daily Socialist news paper, The Call, and settled into her own one-room apartment on Cherry Street. She was 19 years old and quickly overcome by the poverty she encountered and the smell of that poverty inside the tenements she frequented. At this point, she mentions, for the first time, in her major autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” that she could feel “the spell of the long loneliness descend” on her.
In all epidemics, there are some principles which determine how well communities and nations will respond, how long the crisis will last and how soon there will be recovery. We can already draw some lessons from the very big differences between particular countries in the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular why some wealthy nations like the UK and the USA are amongst the hardest hit. Although the numbers infected are still rising and the impact has not yet peaked, in most countries, we are entitled to ask: why have some countries controlled infections and minimized deaths better than others? This question, I suggest, leads us to consider principles of public health systems, of health planning and of broader social coherence.
For 102 years, that lie has gone unchallenged. But now, spurred by curiosity amid a new pandemic, an examination of archived Mecklenburg County death certificates by The Charlotte Observer and a parsing of century-old news accounts reveal that Charlotte leaders — enabled by an acquiescent press and accepting public — systematically under-reported the 1918 death toll by half. In fact, at the height of the epidemic, when citizens were dying at the rate of more than 10 a week, they under-reported the scope of the crisis by two-thirds. To research the issue, the Observer examined official Mecklenburg County death certificates, held in an archive managed by Ancestry.com and accessed through the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, from September 1918 through January 1919 and compared the results to public statements about the scope of the crisis made by officials during the same time.