There is no reason for concern

Friday, May 15th, 2020

Governments aggravated the horrors of the 1918 flu:

For instance, the U.S. military took roughly half of all physicians under 45—and most of the best ones.

What proved even more deadly was the government policy toward the truth. When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality…enter into the very fibre of national life.” So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms….The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State…or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories…cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

Against this background, while influenza bled into American life, public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.

Early in September, a Navy ship from Boston carried influenza to Philadelphia, where the disease erupted in the Navy Yard. The city’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared that he would “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.”

The next day two sailors died of influenza. Krusen stated they died of “old-fashioned influenza or grip,” not Spanish flu. Another health official declared, “From now on the disease will decrease.”

The next day 14 sailors died—and the first civilian. Each day the disease accelerated. Each day newspapers assured readers that influenza posed no danger. Krusen assured the city he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.”

By September 26, influenza had spread across the country, and so many military training camps were beginning to look like Devens that the Army canceled its nationwide draft call.

Philadelphia had scheduled a big Liberty Loan parade for September 28. Doctors urged Krusen to cancel it, fearful that hundreds of thousands jamming the route, crushing against each other for a better view, would spread disease. They convinced reporters to write stories about the danger. But editors refused to run them, and refused to print letters from doctors. The largest parade in Philadelphia’s history proceeded on schedule.

The incubation period of influenza is two to three days. Two days after the parade, Krusen conceded that the epidemic “now present in the civilian population was…assuming the type found in” Army camps. Still, he cautioned not to be “panic stricken over exaggerated reports.”

He needn’t have worried about exaggeration; the newspapers were on his side. “Scientific Nursing Halting Epidemic,” an Inquirer headline blared. In truth, nurses had no impact because none were available: Out of 3,100 urgent requests for nurses submitted to one dispatcher, only 193 were provided. Krusen finally and belatedly ordered all schools closed and banned all public gatherings—yet a newspaper nonsensically said the order was not “a public health measure” and “there is no cause for panic or alarm.”

There was plenty of cause. At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people…in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza…[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots …with influenza patients…There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

In most disasters, people come together, help each other, as we saw recently with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But in 1918, without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people looked after only themselves.

In Philadelphia, the head of Emergency Aid pleaded, “All who are free from the care of the sick at home… report as early as possible…on emergency work.” But volunteers did not come. The Bureau of Child Hygiene begged people to take in—just temporarily—children whose parents were dying or dead; few replied. Emergency Aid again pleaded, “We simply must have more volunteer helpers….These people are almost all at the point of death. Won’t you…come to our help?” Still nothing. Finally, Emergency Aid’s director turned bitter and contemptuous: “Hundreds of women…had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy…Nothing seems to rouse them now…There are families in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.”

Philadelphia’s misery was not unique. In Luce County, Michigan, a couple and three children were all sick together, but, a Red Cross worker reported, “Not one of the neighbors would come in and help. I …telephoned the woman’s sister. She came and tapped on the window, but refused to talk to me until she had gotten a safe distance away.” In New Haven, Connecticut, John Delano recalled, “Normally when someone was sick in those days [people] would bring food over to other families but…Nobody was coming in, nobody would bring food in, nobody came to visit.” In Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged for help, pleaded that there were “hundreds of cases…[of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.”


Prompted by the re-emergence of avian influenza, governments, NGOs and major businesses around the world have poured resources into preparing for a pandemic. Because of my history of the 1918 pandemic, The Great Influenza, I was asked to participate in some of those efforts.


Then there are the less glamorous measures, known as nonpharmaceutical interventions: hand-washing, telecommuting, covering coughs, staying home when sick instead of going to work and, if the pandemic is severe enough, widespread school closings and possibly more extreme controls. The hope is that “layering” such actions one atop another will reduce the impact of an outbreak on public health and on resources in today’s just-in-time economy. But the effectiveness of such interventions will depend on public compliance, and the public will have to trust what it is being told.

That is why, in my view, the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth. Though that idea is incorporated into every preparedness plan I know of, its actual implementation will depend on the character and leadership of the people in charge when a crisis erupts.

I recall participating in a pandemic “war game” in Los Angeles involving area public health officials. Before the exercise began, I gave a talk about what happened in 1918, how society broke down, and emphasized that to retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid. “You don’t manage the truth,” I said. “You tell the truth.” Everyone shook their heads in agreement.

Next, the people running the game revealed the day’s challenge to the participants: A severe pandemic influenza virus was spreading around the world. It had not officially reached California, but a suspected case—the severity of the symptoms made it seem so—had just surfaced in Los Angeles. The news media had learned of it and were demanding a press conference.

The participant with the first move was a top-ranking public health official. What did he do? He declined to hold a press conference, and instead just released a statement: More tests are required. The patient might not have pandemic influenza. There is no reason for concern.

I was stunned. This official had not actually told a lie, but he had deliberately minimized the danger; whether or not this particular patient had the disease, a pandemic was coming. The official’s unwillingness to answer questions from the press or even acknowledge the pandemic’s inevitability meant that citizens would look elsewhere for answers, and probably find a lot of bad ones. Instead of taking the lead in providing credible information he instantly fell behind the pace of events. He would find it almost impossible to get ahead of them again. He had, in short, shirked his duty to the public, risking countless lives.

And that was only a game.


  1. Kirk says:

    That behavior noted in the “pandemic war game” isn’t unusual, at all. I participated in a lot of military staff-level war games, and the really striking thing was that you’d sit in on the pre-brief, where the trainers are going over the planned intent of the wargame, which might have been to teach points like “…don’t go to nukes too early in the scenario…”, and then you’d see the participants do exactly what they had been taught not to do–Go early on the nukes.

    You do enough of those at the worms-eye level, and you start to develop an awful lot of cynicism about the benefits of our selection and training system for mid- and senior-level officers. You also start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the whole thing is skewed by that initial “…here’s what we want to train…” briefing, and that maybe human nature is just contrary to that sort of thing. Tell people not to do something during a training event, and that almost guarantees they’re going to do it, apparently.

    I honestly have to question the entire system we’re using to select, train, assess, and promote these people. So very rarely do you actually get to see effective, rational behavior out of the mass of them that when you do see it, it seems as though it’s some sort of amazing miracle. As opposed to it being a rational expectation routinely encountered.

    There’s a major problem with a system process when the lowest levels in the hierarchy become inured to nonsensical and ineffective action by their higher-ups. You’ll note that across the board, in the government, military, and industrial operations we experience on a daily basis.

    I remember one situation where I and all the other mid-level leaders were looking around at each other in confusion, because the upper layers in the hierarchy were actually doing things that made sense to us, and which we would have done if we were making the decisions in their place. The dislocation that stemmed from that could not have been helpful, at all.

    All of this “stuff” represents things we’ve been doing badly, and for a very long time. Do note that the fish rotted from the head, in the Spanish Influenza case–Nearly everything that is described here as creating problems stemmed from the control-freak Progressives of the Wilson administration, and their attempts to “take charge” of things that are essentially immune to being “taken charge of”.

  2. Centurion Cornelius says:

    Anything that FED GOV injects itself into turns into a fetid pile of cow dung. FED GOV is the disease, not the cure.

  3. Germinals says:

    We’re all in this together, comrade. Keep your distance.

  4. Nemo says:

    The first time I saw fear in the eyes of adults when I was kid in the 50′e was when my maternal grandparents talked about the Flu. They were talking about it because that year there was a major outbreak called “Asian” flu.They knew lots of people that had died from it and recited names, sometimes whole families of names, like they were reading from a book.

    Since mid last century, it seems that all of the major flu outbreaks have originated in Asia. I wonder why that is.

  5. Ned Crabb says:

    I think we’ve reached the point with Government that we can assume the opposite of what they say is true.

  6. Roger Johnson says:

    One really huge problem is giving people with no position in life, and no cause and effect genes, artificial titles of “leader”, and artificial authority. No U.S. politician, at any level, is a leader. They are nothing more than glorified office managers, or secretaries, for we the people. True leaders will arise, if they are allowed to. But usually, politicians block all attempts to elevate skilled, knowledgable, experienced, or natural leaders. Instead, promoting more criminal sociopaths out of their same mold because that’s all they know.

  7. Georgia Boy 61 says:

    Kirk: “Nearly everything that is described here as creating problems stemmed from the control-freak Progressives of the Wilson administration, and their attempts to ‘take charge’ of things that are essentially immune to being ‘taken charge of’.”

    Someone wise — wiser than me — once said something to effect that the real dividing line within humanity lies between those who want to be left alone — and those who can’t leave anything or anyone alone.

    An event like a public health crisis — whether real or not or someplace in between — offers ample opportunities for the control-minded, would-be tyrants, and the busy-bodies to interfere in the lives of others in ways great and small. And if anyone protests, they can wrap themselves in the mantle of the “common good” and accuse the dissenters of being the problem, when in reality it is them.

    C.S. Lewis once said, quite-correctly, the following…

    “My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  8. Huey Pierce Long, Jr. says:

    Kirk: “Nearly everything that is described here as creating problems stemmed from the control-freak Progressives of the Wilson administration, and their attempts to ‘take charge’ of things that are essentially immune to being ‘taken charge of’.”

    What a surprise, Kirk. I didn’t know that you were an old-type revolutionary Marxist libertarian.

    Usually only men of this old type have the spine to stand up to the Progressive machinations of Global Capitalism.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    Progressive machinations? It’s all just churn.

    When everything is a lie, there is no truth. Because that’s the way most people want it. The only question is: can you get people to share a lie? Or will it be competing narratives?

    People who sincerely care about objective truth are oddballs, on the fringes of society. When society collapses, they stand on the edge of the smoking crater and look down, shaking their heads.

  10. Sam J. says:

    Nemo says,”…Since mid last century, it seems that all of the major flu outbreaks have originated in Asia. I wonder why that is.”

    Here’s why,

    Combine that with packing animals and humans in close proximity, using human and animal shit on all their fields and you have your answer.

    Now I will tiotally contradict myself. In India they have much the same thing with dead bodies floating down their rivers and shit everywhere but they don’t seem to be the primary vector for this sort of thing. I don;t know why. Do these people have iron ore or titanium immune systems? The only thing I can come up with is they don’t shit in the fields they do so in the streets. If anyone can explain why everyone in India is not running a constant fever and close to death constantly please explain it to me because I can’t explain it.

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