Lessons Learned from PBS American Experience Episode ‘Influenza 1918’

Earlier this week, we watched the PBS American Experience episode ‘Influenza 1918’ that originally aired in 2018. You can find it streaming on PBS affiliate stations through April and then via the Passport option. Influenza 1918 is the story of the worst epidemic the United States has ever known. The flu would kill more than 600,000 Americans. The international death toll ranges from 17 million to 100 million.

The phrase “Spanish Flu” is a misnomer, based on the reality than Spain based journalists were the first to report on the pandemic rather than any evidence that it began there. So it is more appropriately described as the 1918 Influenza even though it lasted until 1920. The virus was a form of H1N1, similar to the swine flu pandemic.

A few lessons

First, the politics and politicians were in massive public denial for much too long. “It can’t happen here!” was a constant refrain. Another really important fact to consider was how politicians and military leaders made troop decisions in spite of the understanding that close quarters bred the spread of the flu. That could warrant its own hour of investigation with ties in to current events, including the retaliation tactics the Navy used against Captain Brett Crozier.

Second, science was not caught up – they had no idea about viruses. It makes me wonder if in highsight something unique and novel about this coronavirus will be self-evident to future generations. What I really think is that chasing a cure/vaccine is not effective because we need to understand this virus before we can combat it. There’s a segment in the show where a vaccine was developed for the Influenza 2018 but it was whole inadequate because it was based on the wrong science. I’m skeptical about the news of a new vaccine this quickly.

Third, American society was not set up for social distancing and that wasn’t even a concept at the time. Poverty, overcrowding, poor housing, and other things still familiar to us nowadays were doom for many Americans. Entire families crammed into close quarters were wiped out wholesale. While the numbers of us with adequate residential quarters is much better, the realities that face people with precipitous housing arrangements are daunting especially if there’s a need to self-quarantine within a household. It horrifies me that we are more focused on the correlation with obesity as with poverty. That’s typical American behavior – blame individual behaviors over systemic failures. Fat people bringing on the corona themselves is about right.

Perhaps most powerful was the portion to the end where the hosts and guests discussed the “collective forgetting” of America after the crisis passed. While the individuals and families who lost loved ones were forever changed, it was almost like a joint decision to simply pretend this massive disruption has not happened. I certainly was never taught anything about this.

NARRATION: As soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began. 

DR. ALFRED CROSBY, author, “America’s Forgotten Pandemic”:  It is in the individual memory of a great many of us, but it’s not in our collective memory. That, for me, is the, is the greatest mystery: how we could have forgotten anything so horrendous, so massively horrendous, as this, this epidemic which killed so many of us, killed us so fast and our reaction was to forget it.

Dr. Shirley Fannin is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases in Los Angeles. Why? Why wasn’t that part of our memory? Or of our history. I think it’s probably because it was so awful while it was happening, so frightening, that people just got rid of the memory. But it always lingers there. As a kind of an uneasiness. If it happens once before, what’s to say it’s not going to happen again. The more we find out about influenza virus, the more real that fear becomes. 

That’s the possibility or perhaps tendency that frightens me the most – that we will opt to actively forget this. It is actually easy to see how people do this. The pandemic has ripped back the curtain on many realities about our lives, especially the vulnerabilities, that a desperate scramble to pull it back into place is to be expected. It is how people desperate to protect themselves from accountability behave.

The reality is that our collective devaluing of science, the social realities of poverty in our society, and our failures to create public safety nets in healthcare and human services have come back to haunt us. And that will continue if we once again fail to acknowledge the truth about the pandemic in all of its harsh realities.

It is worth your time to watch this episode and at the very least, have a more factual understanding of what happened the last time we had a massive health pandemic in the United States.



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