Of Demagogues, Dumbassery and Death

A drone captures footage of workers burying
the dead in mass graves on New York's Hart Island.
123,000 Americans are dead of coronavirus,
and that number is climbing.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." -George Santayana, 1905

In the winter of 1918, while Europe was locked in a bloody trench war, America was quietly under attack from a far deadlier enemy. 

It began in Haskell County, Kansas, the very definition of a rural community, with 1,720 hog and cattle farmers spread out over 578 square miles. 

Loring Miner, the local doctor, had written the US Public Health Service about an unusually severe three-day flu hitting the county. He was alarmed that this strain was unlike anything he'd ever seen before.

The local newspaper - the Santa Fe Monitor - was initially quiet, concerned about wartime morale, but began to report on the outbreak in the most colloquial way:
"Mrs. Eva Van Alstine is sick with pneumonia. Her little son Roy is now able to get up... Ralph Lindeman is still quite sick... Goldie Wolgehagen is working at the Beeman store during her sister Eva's sickness... Homer Moody has been reported quite sick... Mertin, the young son of Ernest Elliot, is sick with pneumonia... Pete Hesser's children are recovering nicely... Ralph McConnell has been quite sick this week (Santa Fe Monitor, February 14th, 1918)."
Within days, dozens of the healthiest people in the county were laid low "...as suddenly as if they had been shot". Their conditions worsened into pneumonia, and they began to die one after another.

As AP's Beccy Tanner describes it:
"The virus began on the wind-swept Kansas prairie, where dirt-poor farm families struggled to do daily chores — slopping pigs, feeding cattle, horses and chickens, living in primitive, cramped, uninsulated quarters.
It’s not known whether it started in the pigs or chickens or birds flying overhead. But it spread to young farmers who, drafted for World War I, reported for duty at Fort Riley."
On February 28, The Monitor nonchalantly described social events: "Dean Nilson surprised his friends by arriving at home from Camp Funston on a five days furlough. Dean looks like soldier life agrees with him." Nilson soon returned to camp. 

Ernest Elliot, it continued, visited a brother at Funston, whose child had fallen ill.

And one John Bottom left for training in Funston. "We predict John will make an ideal soldier," said the paper.

The first major outbreak soon followed. 

On March 4, a soldier at Camp Funston in Fort Riley reported to the infirmary, and within three weeks, 1,100 of the camp's 56,222 soldiers had fallen ill.

But the war in Europe was still raging, so asymptomatic soldiers boarded trains bound for the coasts, then ships headed for the European theater. 84,000 American soldiers sailed across the Atlantic that month, followed by 118,000 more in April.

According to the National Institutes of Health, "One could see influenza jumping from Army camp to camp, then into cities, and traveling with troops to Europe".

The epidemic worsened for three months, then vanished, as suddenly as it had arrived. Factories, schools and churches reopened, and life returned to normal - outside of the war, of course.

Meanwhile, the virus quietly and repeatedly mutated, reappearing in pulses, increasing in virulence with each wave. 

Since Spain was a neutral country and not subject to Allied censorship, it was the first to report on the pandemic, and thus received the unhappy honor of having its name attached to the "Spanish Flu". 

In the fall of 1918, Spanish Flu returned in its full fury, ripping through communities across the planet. Its deadlier form killed within hours: a victim's skin would turn blue, and they would slowly suffocate as their lungs filled with blood. 

The pandemic infected half a billion people, killing between 20 to 50 million, among them 675,000 Americans. Many had to dig graves for their own family members.

According to the History channel, the piles of bodies became overwhelming: 
"In New Haven, Connecticut, six-year-old John Delano and his friends played outside of a mortuary, scaling a mountain of caskets piled on a sidewalk, unaware of the contents inside. 'We thought—boy, this is great. It’s like climbing the pyramids,' he recalled."
Efforts to combat the disease were mixed: in St. Louis, schools, businesses and public venues were closed, and in San Francisco, people were ordered to wear masks, and fined if they did not; but in other cities, public officials were reluctant to appear unpatriotic, so they downplayed the seriousness of the disease and urged the public to carry on as if things were normal. 

Dr. Wilmer Krusen, Public Health and Charities director for Philadelphia, chose the latter course, insisting the pandemic was just "the normal flu", and hosting the Liberty Loan parade on September 28. "Tens of thousands of men, women and children attended, "...spreading the disease like wildfire". 

In a week and a half, over 1,000 Philadelphians died, and another 200,000 contracted the disease. Krusen and the city council shut down the city, but far too late - over 15,000 citizens would die by March, 1919. Meanwhile, St. Louis's death toll was one-eighth that number. 
"The scenes in Philadelphia appeared to be straight out of the plague-infested Middle Ages. Throughout the day and night, horse-drawn wagons kept a constant parade through the streets of Philadelphia as priests joined the police in collecting corpses draped in sackcloths and blood-stained sheets that were left on porches and sidewalks.
The bodies were piled on top of each other in the wagons with limbs protruding from underneath the sheets. The parents of one small boy who succumbed to the flu begged the authorities to allow him the dignity of being buried in a wooden box that had been used to ship macaroni instead of wrapping him a sheet and having him taken away in a patrol wagon."
In San Francisco, police strictly enforced mask-wearing, but dissenters eventually formed an “Anti-Mask League,” holding public meetings with as many as 2000 attendees.

San Francisco would become the hardest-hit city in America, with 45,000 cases in total, and three out of every 100 people dead.

Everyday citizens paid with their lives for the recklessness and myopia of a few elitists. 

According to pandemic experts, we're at far greater risk today. Harvard Global Health Institute's Olga Jonas explains:
"...the speed of the virus spread is a most concerning feature. One clear difference is that the world is now much more densely populated than in 1918. There were fewer than 2 billion people in 1918, and now there are 7.5 billion, and the population is much more mobile. In 1918, there was no air travel. People move around much more, and the spread of a virus is much faster than before, when people traveled by ship or horse, or didn’t travel much at all. Another difference is that in 1918, between 50 and 100 million people died within two years."
And, contrary to Trump's reassurances, the US government is handling the pandemic in the worst way possible: 
"The U.S. government didn’t react either quickly or adequately back in January, when the first confirmed case of coronavirus was found. Governments have to act early in the outbreak because the contagion spreads exponentially; two infect four, four infect 16, and 16 infect 84, and so on. There were serious lapses at the beginning, like the lack of capacity for necessary testing. When testing began in the United States, it was already too late. In an outbreak, every day counts.
The comparison between the U.S. and South Korea is very telling. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was found in the United States the same day as in South Korea: Jan. 20. South Korea acted right away by banning mass gatherings, implementing extensive testing, contact tracing, isolating the infected, and quarantining those suspected of being infected. As a result, South Korea was able to contain the spread of the virus; there have been more than 10,000 cases and about 200 deaths. In the United States, the situation is worsening by the day." 
"What we know from the 1918 flu pandemic," she adds, "is that the cities or governments that took early action in imposing quarantines, closing down schools, and banning mass gatherings had lower death rates than the places that did less or did it later."

Spanish flu was transmitted via respiratory droplets, and COVID-19 is spread in exactly the same way: when a victim talks, coughs or sneezes, respiratory droplets are ejected into the air, to be inhaled by anyone nearby. Additionally, touching a surface covered with COVID-19 virus, then touching one's eyes, nose or mouth can transmit the disease.

Unlike Spanish flu, however, the human immune system may not build permanent immunity after exposure.

And in an echo of 1918, we are still in the first wave of COVID-19 infections, and experts say things are about to get much, much worse

In the meantime, you're likely seeing people acting as though things are completely normal again, huddling together in bars, attending mass beach parties, defying stay-at-home orders to attend church

This is exactly the wrong thing to do and it will get you killed. Or, perhaps your mother, father, grandparents or children. 

Wake up. Remember, NOTHING HAS CHANGED. 

The killer is still out there. 

And, if you're unlucky enough, it's lying in wait for you.