The Great Influenza ~ by John M. Barry

Another good book!  And right on time – :-).   I’d been wondering about this book since probably June but for awhile I thought it would be too much for me considering the situation with the coronavirus here.  But now- even with the virus worse here – (I’m in North Dakota) I got intrigued and ended up buying both the Audible and the Kindle versions (I like to see pictures and footnotes and graphs and whatever).  

I want to put this link to an interesting site here – it is by the author of the book and compares the pandemic of 1918, the Spanish Flu, to our current Novel Coronavirus-19.

The Great Influenza:
The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History 
by John M. Barry
* 2004 – 546 pages
Read by Scott Brick 19h 26m
Rating 9.5 –  / history – medicine 

I’ve been interested in the “Spanish Flu” since high school days but never really read much specifically about it.  And there are no more recent books about this except for some really slim ones. (C’mon Beck, 2004 is not exactly “old,” but …).  I really, really do wish I’d asked my grandparents about it.  I understand that’s when one of my great aunts went into nursing – her photo is in the home where my mother is living.  I know there were many deaths here – the cemetery has lots of 1918s on the marker

I’ve got to put this in here – it’s a well stated review from Wikipedia *****

A 2004 Journal of Clinical Investigation review said that the book was “well conceived, well researched, and extremely well written” targeting a broad audience-physicians, scientists, medical students, and history buffs.[1] Barry Gewen of The New York Times praises it saying “He is a good teacher, in part because he assumes that his readers don’t know anything. He explains the technical stuff clearly, with nice, homey analogies”[2]

In the summer of 2005, President George W. Bush read the book while on vacation at his ranch in Crawford.[3] His study would later set forth plans for the federal government to prepare for future pandemics in a November 2005 speech.[4]

The book is experiencing a surge in popularity as a result of the 2019-2020 COVID-19 pandemic.[5]

There’s a lot in this book – Part 1 is about the medical situation – the US was way behind in terms of theory and process.  We still looked at medicine as a matter of observation and logic. There was no room for experimentation.  Germ theory had just been discovered and was being slowly accepted. 

Part 2 deals with the virus itself and the biology of it – how it spreads, how it mutates and kills humans.  This aspect and the scientists who worked on the search for a cure or vaccine or whatever they could do is a big part of the book!

Part 3 deals with politics and WWI and why those two played into the horrendous spread of the disease.  From propaganda and censorship to the crowded barracks in many cases government policy and statements only made things worse.  The doctors featured did an admirable job and the US banded together, but there were glitches, sometimes serious ones which led to an inability to deal with a pandemic of this scope.  So because lies were told, information was withheld and people were dying, the panic grew. (“And they said, ‘Oh well, it’s just influenza.'”)

In Part 4 we get to the pandemic as it hits the US in the middle of a World War – and it hit all over the world –  First, on March 18, 1918 the influenza struck at Haskell and then Funston, both Kansas military bases and and then wherever the troops were sent, from Georgia (US) to France and beyond as far away as China, Russia and Kenya.  (This place of origin is agreed on by virtually all authorities although there are a few who hold out.)

The thing about the Spanish Flu and the Covid-19 attack is that the US was at war when the Spanish Flu hit and it hit first in the over-crowded American military bases. This was in February of 1918. From there it spread to other bases and the world.  The US was trying to focus on fighting WWI which we’d joined in April 1917.  

Almost any disparagement of the war effort was regarded as bad for morale at least and actual treason at most (See the different responses of Eugene Debbs AND Woodrow Wilson). Information about the Spanish Flu barely got out and when it did it was always about the country having “got past it.” (Oh why does this part feel like déjà vu?) The war effort was the news.

Philadelphia was hit early and very hard – possibly the worst hit – because they ignored the influenza (“It’s just the flu!”) and held a massive war bond effort including a huge parade instead.  This was in September of 1918 and everyone had to support the war.

The book is full of the horrendous details regarding the nature of the disease itself, biologically and the physical effects it had on people. It is estimated that almost 500 million people died world wide. But because so many of the fatalities were military related, or uncountable in remote areas, there are no firm figures for death the toll.  

In 2020 the Coronavirus-19 did not attack US military bases first and we were not involved in a world war. But still, the US was unprepared for a real pandemic because we did NOT learn our lesson.

There we were given plenty of information – but much of it was false and people already did not trust the government thanks to the election of 2016.

The main lessons for today (2018 – pre-Covid-19) of Barry’s book include the usual ideas about increasing investment in vaccines and transportation,  but he also says that we should continue to prepare and when it happens, and it will, to not let fear turn into the terror and panic of 1918.

 By withholding official information and not coordinating mitigation efforts, Trump did just exactly that and then made it worse by not taking any action and insisting that all was well – “we’ve turned the corner.”  The lies of the officials and the press prevented the public from knowing the concrete facts. And the panic which resulted threatened to break the country apart – again – and again.

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2 Responses to The Great Influenza ~ by John M. Barry

  1. Pingback: Nightmare Scenario ~ by Yasmeen Abutaleb | Becky's Books –

  2. Pingback: The Premonition ~ by Michael Lewis  | Becky's Books –

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