Today’s scary book.

I have just finished re-reading John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza. This may just be the scariest book I’ve ever read, including Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and Randy Shilts’s The Band Played On. (I did not find the Shilts book scary so much as rage-inducing.)

The most frightening parts were not about the specifics of the virus as about the way in which political, military, and social conditions massively increased the death toll, especially in the U.S. Do you know why the flu became known as the “Spanish Flu”? Spain was neutral in W.W.I. so there was less censorship (self-censorship as well as government imposed) and so papers in Spain reported on the flu epidemic where in other countries it was suppressed so as to not “hurt morale.” Because papers in Spain reported on it first, it was assumed it began there.

Actually, epidemiologists believe the influenza started in the U.S., specifically in Kansas. A nasty strain of influenza broke out in and around the town of Haskell (an agricultural region — the virus may have migrated from pigs to humans) and was carried to military encampments at Camp Funston by young men who had been exposed. From there, young men were dispersed all across the country.

Even aside from the tremendous personnel drain (particularly doctors and nurses) caused by the war, the federal government was more concered about the war effort than protecting soldiers and civilans from disease. (The descriptions of conditions in hospitals — both civilian and military — are horrific. The images stay with me, such as the nurses at one hospital who started putting toe tags on living patients.)

Local officials threatened anyone who wrote about the flu, saying they were “hurting morale.” Given the federal government’s penchant for throwing people in prison, there were significant disinincentives to reveal the truth. In Philadelphia, the mayor went ahead with a war bond parade even after being warned that it would spread the flu. Within 24 hours, people were swamping hospitals. Who knows how many people died for “morale”?

Any time the government places the pursuit of an exterior goal above the welfare of actual human lives, the possibility for tragedy exists. Does that sound familiar?

That the tragedy may only affect a subset of the American populace matters not at all. We need to protect every American.

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