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1919 vs 2020


I want to take a minute, step back a bit, and talk about comparative responses to the last two major flu (or flu-like) epidemics in the United States. This came up in comments to Paul’s post today and it has helped me to flesh out some thoughts I’ve had about this from the beginning of the crisis, as well as some other media stuff I’ve been doing.

People are naturally freaked out right now. Despite Republicans’ demands to reopen, most people are at least saying publicly that they would rather stay at home. I remain a bit skeptical that their personal behavior will follow that for long, but we will see. This has been a truly unprecedented situation in history (and I don’t say that often) with the entire world shutting down their economy and society in order to get the virus under control. The results so far have been highly mixed, with Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand doing a pretty amazing job and the United States doing among the very worst, at least among rich nations.

Now, I’m not blaming anyone for being scared. I’m on Day 53 of my own personal quarantine and it doesn’t seem that’s going to end anytime soon, desperately needed haircut notwithstanding. But we do have some realities to face. Some of those are unique to our nation and some are pretty universal. For one, a shutdown only has a short shelf life in any nation. For a nation with such a ridiculous sense of individual empowerment at the United States, that’s going to be shorter, as we are seeing. That the U.S. has a government that would be a universal laughingstock if it were a less powerful and important nation is unbelievably tragic right now. Whether any nation is going to be able to really control this when they get people out and about again is an open question, as is the feasibility of continued lockdowns over the next however many years before a vaccine is developed, if one ever is.

So, it is what it is I guess. We aren’t going to get the testing regime and contact tracing in place before we reopen, cases never really went down outside of New York, and the government is determined to open up the nation, even if the citizens are not. I’ve thought from the very beginning that the U.S. would be the one nation to kill many of its people AND destroy the economy at the same time. American exceptionalism at its finest!

That said, and given the unknown length of time before a vaccine and/or treatments come online and are effective and mass-produced, it’s worth noting the comparison between 2020 and the Spanish flu (should be called the Kansas flu since that seems to be where it actually started) of 1918-19.

It’s really remarkable to me that the flu of a century killed 675,000 Americans out of a population of 110 million, meaning that roughly works out to the 2.2 million upper range guess of projections for COVID-19 by proportion of the population. And yet, the cultural response to it was primarily to shrug our collective shoulders and get on with our lives. It wasn’t total ignorance that created that situation. Some communities did engage in effective quarantining, for instance, and there were real death rate differentials between them. But to my knowledge anyway, sports weren’t cancelled. The World Series went on as normal (and quite famously in 1919!). There was no effective government response at the federal level.

Moreover, when it ended, the Spanish flu had almost no impact on American culture. There’s a very few references to it in American literature. Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider. Hemingway mentions it in Death in the Afternoon. There’s a good John O’Hara story about it. And….that’s basically it? Does Dos Passos mention it in 1919? I am about to reread that in part to find out. It’s simply not something people really talked about when it ended. It just became a series of small personal tragedies as the nation moved on to “more important” matters.

It’s not just that. I have never read a single mention ever of the American labor movement discussing this or organizing around workplace safety conditions, even though that flu, unlike COVID-19, targeted young people in the 20s and 30s primarily, i.e., people of peak working age. In my studies of the IWW in the Pacific Northwest for Empire of Timber, I never saw one reference to it. The IWW was talking about workplace conditions all the time. Moreover, they were organizing in about the most ideal environment for flu spreading possible–overcrowded bunkhouses in extremely moist environments among young men. I have no doubt that loggers were heavily hit with the flu. But there’s not a mention of it. Other historians have noted this as well. As the crisis started, Joshua Freeman wrote an article in Jacobin about how radicalism can happen at times of pandemic. Now, Freeman is a very good historian, the dean of New York labor history. But this was the typical type of Jacobin article that elided the point–yes, there were lots of radical actions taking place at the time, but there’s no evidence any of them had anything to do with the flu, as Freeman himself admits. Have historians just missed it? Or is there nothing there? The answer seems to be the latter.

Now, yes it is true that the years of 1918 and 1919 were fast-paced years in the U.S. Over 100,000 people died in World War I. As an aside, this also shows the shallowness of comparisons between death rates in war and in disease, which people have been throwing out left and right these days. It’s just not the same thing, not in 1919 or in 2020. Anyway, it was also the period of the Red Scare and the suppression of radicalism around the nation. So you might ask yourself whether these issues would simply move flu deaths off the front page and out of the public consciousness. But I think not. First, the Red Scare means more to radical Americans today than it did to everyday citizens in 1919, who largely supported getting rid of the Bolsheviks and Wobblies. Second, conservative unions in the AFL were not responding to the flu differently than the IWW, in the sense that neither were really referencing it at all. Third, while the war and its aftermath obviously were dominant features of American life at the time, there’s hardly anything in there that would erase the memory of a situation where nearly 7 times as many people died as in the war.

So what is going on here? The differences are fairly obvious yet I think worth stating. Fundamentally, Americans were simply more used to death in 1919 than in 2020. People died younger and it was a more common fact of life then. Now, don’t underestimate the science in 1919. The germ theory was pretty well-established. Cities were being cleaned up. People knew that quarantining worked. The frequent pandemics of the 16th-19th centuries were largely in the past. But still….between deaths in pregnancy and deaths on the job, deaths from poisonings of very sorts and deaths from any number of accidents in overcrowded and dangerous cities, people died young. I don’t have the stats in front of me, but in some industries at least, workers’ life span was at least twenty years less than their bosses.

This does not mean that death was less felt then. But people understood their own mortality at all times. It just wasn’t that surprising to die. And so people were indeed scared in 1919, but they did go on with their lives the best they could. When the whole thing ended, it just doesn’t seem to have been a big enough deal to have created widespread changes in American life. Oh sure, there were some important transformations around the edges. The use of morticians to handle dead bodies became a real profession, for instance. But compared to the impact of the Great Depression or the threat of nuclear war, never mind the world wars, it simply pales in comparison to other major 20th century events despite being the single most deadly event for Americans of that time period.

Basically, what has changed is us. We see ourselves as something closer to immortal today. OK, we know we aren’t really immortal, but it isn’t something we think about much. Mass death events are a thing of the past. The only two health crises even close to the flu between then and now were polio and HIV and those are very different types of events. Polio’s transformation into something much more powerful than in the past definitely scared lots and lots and lots of people, but what could you really do? AIDS certainly frightened many, but it was also classified as gay cancer early on and Reagan was happy to let them all die until his buddy Rock Hudson fell to the disease.

We have a culture of immortality. That’s not a bad thing. Science has advanced so far. We think we can protect ourselves from the outside world through eating and exercise and medicine. To an extent, we can. Even though COVID-19 has hit very old people in nursing homes and those with co-morbidities much harder than most people, it’s seen as an unimaginable tragedy to lose these people in a way that the deaths of thousands upon thousands of young parents and workers was not a century ago. To an extent, this is a reminder that human beings are incredibly fragile animals who have bodies where germs and bacteria pass in and out of all the time. We just don’t think about it. Our seeming indifference to climate change is related to this as well. We simply think we will figure it out, just like we figured out polio or the ozone layer or how to make a good television comedy.

We are tremendously vulnerable beasts at the best of times, whether we think about it or not. As this crisis goes forward and our political leadership continues to fail us and a subset of people refuse to follow even basic health guidelines anyway, dooming us to a lot more deaths than necessary, our response will in part be framed by to what extent we start returning to the understanding of our ancestors as to their place in the world. Will we decide that we are going to get on with our lives the best we can given the horrible circumstances since death is inevitable and coming soon anyway or will we remain scared enough to stay inside if we can, even if this lasts for 3 or 4 years? Will we place ourselves within an environmental framework of vulnerability and mortality or will we continue to see death as an aberration that should have nothing to do with us? These are questions I will be watching. And asking of myself too.

I do not really judge either way. I save my judgment for those who have put us in this situation of these choices being more stark than they needed to be. People acting like the social animals they are is entirely understandable. The ultimate question may be when we remember that we are in fact animals to begin with.

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