The chief message from 1918, uttered through anguish and broken-heartedness, teaches a simple yet perilous if forgotten lesson: Tell the truth.

 

Do that — and you just might live.

Written by E. Rosalie | Editor for NOVEL SCIENCE

In the spring of 1918, a strange illness began claiming the lives of healthy people in their prime. The world held just 1.7 billion people back then. No less than 675 thousand Americans and 50 million people worldwide perished, as a virus prowled its way through one-third of the entire human population.

It is also the case that a low-fatality rate is a feature of a pandemic, not a comfort. High-fatality rate diseases may be less likely to cause a global epidemic because of visible, severe symptoms that help with containment.

Only recently have we gained insight into precisely how people died in the 1918 pandemic. No one understood why this one was so much worse than others or why it killed seemingly healthy, young adults.

When the virus infected a person’s lungs, the body rallied its defenses. Something about this influenza strain provoked a response that was far more aggressive than the seasonal flu. It might have been that younger people had more robust immune systems, so the self-destruction was worse than for the elderly.

The “friendly fire” from the body’s attack on the virus destroyed the delicate tissue that formed tiny sacs in the lungs called alveoli. Oxygen enters the bloodstream through skin so thin that it reminds one of a butterfly’s wing.

Victims of the 1918 pandemic lost their ability to breathe; they drowned with no way to stop it. The surface meant for releasing carbon dioxide and taking in oxygen became a battleground, often leaving it unrecognizable. Cases of the pandemic flu were sometimes mistaken for bubonic plague because of the deep blue color they took on as they struggled to get oxygen into the blood through their remaining healthy lung tissue.

1918 virus damage versus that of the regular seasonal influenza

Instead, they received simple advice.“When you get back home, hunt up your wood-workers and cabinet-makers and set them to making coffins. Then take your street laborers and set them to digging graves. If you do this, you will not have your dead accumulating faster than you can dispose of them.” 

President Wilson abdicated his duties to the American people and intentionally blinded the public by controlling the press in a time of both pandemic and war.He failed to lead, strategize, plan, or be honest with the public who had a right to know the truth. While US doctors who had been to war said, the pandemic “beats any sights they had in France after a battle,” this silence persisted.

The US government’s official line may well have gaslit some portion of the 675,000 Americans into their graves, persisted: “Don’t catch the Spanish Hysteria.”Present-day public health experts faced similar accusations of drumming up coronavirus fear in the media, but that wasn’t what happened.Government officials downplayed the crisis they knew to be critical without question, breaking every list on the “do not do” column from the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Handbook.

 

It may come as a surprise that I’m not at all worried the world will soon end. In fact, I have a great deal of hope. The scientists from “The Hopkins” devoted to finding and speaking the truth still exist.

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The Project analyzes the COVID-19 crisis compared to 1918 events in real-time and hopes to gain insights helpful to future generations. These will eventually be compiled in an undecided format, with original artwork inspired by the crisis — pandemic art has been with us as long as outbreaks.

Ralph and I are fine, and have not gotten the “flue” [sic] yet altho [sic] it is pretty bad down here at present. It seems to be among the older folks and children. The graded schools and High School is closed here but only a few students of K.U. have it, they thought it was not necessary to close college until they see that it must be done.