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The Great Influenza: Book Review

"There was terror afoot in 1918, real terror. The randomness of death brought that terror home. So did its speed... So the final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that those who occupy positions of authority must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society. Society cannot function if it is every man for himself. By definition, civilization cannot survive that.
Those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best.
A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart." -- John M. Barry

These are the words that end the afterword written in 2018, 100 years after the pandemic and two years from being sad example of history plagiarizing itself. In 20th century America, the lies were meant to protect the war effort, in 21st century America, the lies are meant to benefit only one person--Donald Trump--and as I write this with 80-ish days to the election, it appears that his mishandling of the pandemic is the chief reason for his reelection issues (and he should be held accountable for this abject failure to do anything of substance).

This is not only a book of warning for leaders and the press on how to shape the narrative of a pandemic, in fact, it is mostly a story of the rise of medicine out of the dark ages of alchemy. The doctors and health professionals profiled in this work are without question ahead of their time. The fact that they implemented an impressive short term 180 from bloodletting to germ theory across the nation and then managed to identify the viral nature of the pandemic and the initial discovery of genetic material is thanks to their grit and unadulterated commitment to the scientific method.

Interesting and horrifying tidbits include:

  • That the undiagnosed influenza in President Wilson likely led to his decline in the Versailles Treaty talks that ended WWI but depressed Germany so intensely as to lead to WWII and the rise of fascism in Germany, Japan, and Italy.

  • The flu nearly extinguished the Inuit people of Alaska, whole villages were wiped out.

  • And no one wrote about it, there is very little literature from 1918 or about the pandemic even though there is much great literature about the horrors of WWI that was ending at that time.

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, this book stands as a testament to the intelligence and bravery of medical professionals, especially the nurses that are called upon to suffer alongside the dying and in 1918 were not paid a fair wage for this labor of grace. It shows the grit of scientists to doggedly work the problem to get a life-saving answer and failing that, the suffering of those directly in the maelstrom of historic trends and forces. Finally, it teaches us that civilization is worth fighting for, even while being physically distanced, we are lucky to have the internet to prevent social distancing--so long as we use it not for misinformation and fear but hope and preventative information.


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