Commentary: How we 'recovered' from the Spanish flu should be a warning for the coronavirus age

Commentary: How we 'recovered' from the Spanish flu should be a warning for the coronavirus age

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An image from an electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists say this version of the coronavirus has mutated and become more contagious.

An image from an electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists say this version of the coronavirus has mutated and become more contagious. (NIAID-RML/Zuma Press/TNS)

The historian in me is fascinated by how Americans in crisis make use of the past to predict the future. To those inclined to look backward, the so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 offers pundits the obvious historical analogy to our own COVID-19 moment.

A century ago, the flu killed roughly 50 million people worldwide, negatively shaped the global order for years afterward and was spectacularly mishandled by political leaders trying mightily to ignore it.

The Spanish influenza offers a painful cautionary lesson at odds with what I'm reading by today's futurists - many of whom have adopted a "creative destruction" metaphor to describe the impact of COVID-19. According to their reasoning, the misery inflicted by the coronavirus will pave the way for universal health care, a renaissance of American manufacturing and cities, better public epidemiology, more accountable politicians, a global population hardened by "herd immunity" and the end of science denial.

We wish, naturally if desperately, for the silver lining.

Lacking a crystal ball, I propose that, if we want to realize that silver lining, we should pay closer attention to how the Spanish flu played out in American politics and society as that epidemic ran its course.

The public history of the Spanish flu and its aftermath in the United States is complicated and, on the secondary level where I teach, poorly conveyed by textbooks and in many classrooms.

For the first time, by 1918 Americans could no longer escape the fact that they were living in a global milieu and caught up in affairs beyond their borders. U.S. participation in World War I led to the conscription of nearly 3 million Americans, with almost 1 million sent to fight in Europe. By the armistice in November, both the flu and disillusionment had set in. Rejecting the Versailles Treaty because it would tie America to suspect international commitments within a League of Nations, in the 1920 presidential election voters also threw out the party responsible for Versailles, electing a nonentity in Republican Warren Harding, who made vague promises about returning to "normalcy."

The turn away from internationalism awakened xenophobia at home. Congress passed two highly restrictive immigration acts in 1921 and 1924, and the first Red Scare emerged in 1919. The working classes, fed up with wartime demands for greater labor, difficult conditions and low wages, staged a general strike in Seattle in February 1919 that shut down the city. Class unrest generated hysteria that led federal agents to target radical labor unions for destruction and foreign and domestic "agitators" for arrest and deportation.

Race relations grew increasingly fraught. Chicago experienced a brutal race riot in the summer of 1919, and Tulsa, Okla., followed suit two years later. Thirty-eight people died in Chicago, perhaps hundreds in Tulsa, and the Ku Klux Klan morphed from a Southern hate group to an organization with national reach and membership.

The quest to curb disorder included ratification of the 18th Amendment in January 1919, abolishing the sale and distribution of alcohol. Prohibition was meant to curb wayward tendencies among the same suspect groups targeted just after the war: "unruly" immigrants, workers and African Americans.

Fear, suspicion and hysteria need not have prevailed. The immediate postwar years coincided with the first votes cast by women (they voted in the election of 1920); marvelous technological developments including national radio broadcasts, the proliferation of Hollywood movies and the rapid evolution of air travel; as well as a burst of artistic creativity ranging from jazz to Lost Generation and Harlem Renaissance poetry and prose.

However, national leaders in the 1920s were not up to the task of shepherding the nation through the problems it confronted. Harding has gone down as one of the worst presidents in our history, shortsighted and presiding over an exceptionally corrupt administration.

Real reform had to wait for the next major crisis: the Great Depression of 1929. The architect of that reform, Franklin Roosevelt, was the unsuccessful vice presidential candidate of 1920. Tellingly, he proclaimed at the outset of the New Deal that the only thing Americans had to fear was "fear itself."

We deserve true reform in the aftermath of this crisis, but wishful thinking won't make it so. Given the current climate, it seems highly likely that fear may yet prevail.

But if the past is truly to serve as our guide, we should heed FDR's admonition. We cannot let the old stumbling blocks of race, class and xenophobia dominate our national conversation about the way forward from this pandemic.



Chris Doyle, Ph.D., is a history teacher at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn.

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