Telling the truth is crucial when it comes to managing pandemics, says John Barry


A medical worker wearing personal protective equipment takes care of a patient in the intensive care unit of the Sotiria hospital in Athens following the coronavirus disease outbreak

TAGS: Interview, Coronavirus, History, Health

On the one hand, we have the enormous strides made in the fields of medicine and technology; on the other, we have mankind’s enduring proclivity for procrastination when faced with the relentlessness of nature. 

In a discussion with American historian John Barry, author of the New York Times best-seller “The Great Influenza,” Kathimerini examines some of the key factors separating the pandemics of 2020 and 1918.

How did the Spanish flu appear in 1918? What happened?

Same as today… an animal virus jumped species into humans and spread widely. It did not start in Spain. It probably started in either China, the US, France, or Vietnam.

Which countries were affected by that pandemic and how many deaths did it cause?

Everywhere in the world. It killed 50-100 million people, which adjusted for population would be 220-440 million people today.

How did the international community respond?

Warring countries censored their press and generally downplayed it initially, because they thought telling the truth would hurt morale and the war effort.

What kind of measures were taken?

There were few if any general lockdowns. In the US, local governments generally closed schools and all places where people gathered, from bars to churches.

How did national health systems cope with the pandemic at that time? How effective were they?

There were no national health systems that I know of. Healthcare was overwhelmed. Emergency hospitals were built everywhere.

Were there any medications to treat that virus?

Just supportive care, although attempts were made to develop vaccines against certain bacterial pneumonias. But they didn’t know what caused the disease or even what a virus was, so the vaccines were useless unless by chance someone developed a secondary bacterial pneumonia from that particular bacteria.

Were there any conspiracy theories around the pandemic at that time?

Plenty. In the US for example, some claimed it was German germ warfare, or that Bayer aspirin caused influenza.

What was the economic impact of the Spanish flu? What was the intensity of the economic crisis that followed?

It’s impossible to ascertain. There were few if any general lockdowns. Legally, only schools, theaters, bars, churches and similar gathering places were closed. But absenteeism from work routinely exceeded 50 percent, which certainly impacted economic activity.

How long did the pandemic last? And how much did it take then for economies and societies to return to normality?

In any given community, the second wave lasted six to 10 weeks, then all but disappeared after it burned through the population. Many places saw a third wave in March or April 1919, deadly, but not as deadly as the second fall wave. Most places returned quickly. The first wave was very hit-or-miss and ill-defined. Some countries saw widespread disease. Others saw little. The same thing occurred within a country. New York and Chicago had a pronounced first wave. Los Angeles did not have a single influenza death in the spring of 1918.

Were there any permanent changes in the function of states and people’s behavior and habits following the pandemic?

Probably not.

Which virus would you say is worse? The Spanish flu in 1918 or the coronavirus of 2020?

1918 was definitely more lethal. Much more. 2020 is more contagious.

How difficult or how easy do you think it will be for humanity to find its feet again after Covid-19?

I believe we will adjust fairly rapidly.

What does historical experience show? What is the key factor in effectively managing a pandemic?

Tell the truth from the beginning. Otherwise people won’t pay appropriate attention to your advice.

What would you say that the comparison of these two pandemics teaches us more broadly?

Invest in public health resources.