“1919 vs. 2020”

We had this discussion the other day about a questionable claim regarding the effects of social distancing policies during the 1918/1919 flu epidemic, and then I ran across this post by Erik Loomis who compares the social impact of today’s epidemic to what happened 102 years ago:

It’s really remarkable to me [Loomis] that the flu of a century killed 675,000 Americans out of a population of 110 million, meaning that roughly works out to the 2.2 million upper range guess of projections for COVID-19 by proportion of the population. And yet, the cultural response to it was primarily to shrug our collective shoulders and get on with our lives. . . . Some communities did engage in effective quarantining, for instance, and there were real death rate differentials between them. But to my knowledge anyway, sports weren’t cancelled. The World Series went on as normal (and quite famously in 1919!). There was no effective government response at the federal level.

Moreover, when it ended, the Spanish flu had almost no impact on American culture. There’s a very few references to it in American literature. Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse Pale Rider. Hemingway mentions it in Death in the Afternoon. There’s a good John O’Hara story about it. And….that’s basically it? . . .

Now, yes it is true that the years of 1918 and 1919 were fast-paced years in the U.S. Over 100,000 people died in World War I . . . [but] while the war and its aftermath obviously were dominant features of American life at the time, there’s hardly anything in there that would erase the memory of a situation where nearly 7 times as many people died as in the war.

So what is going on here? . . . Americans were simply more used to death in 1919 than in 2020. People died younger and it was a more common fact of life then. Now, don’t underestimate the science in 1919. The germ theory was pretty well-established. Cities were being cleaned up. People knew that quarantining worked. The frequent pandemics of the 16th-19th centuries were largely in the past. But still….between deaths in pregnancy and deaths on the job, deaths from poisonings of very sorts and deaths from any number of accidents in overcrowded and dangerous cities, people died young. . . .

I remember thinking about this in the 1970s and 1980s, when we were all scared of being blown up in a nuclear war. (Actually, I’m still scared about that.) My reasoning went like this: (1) The post-1960s period was the first time in human history that we had the ability to destroy our civilization. (2) This seemed particular horrifying for my generation because we had grown up with the assumption that we’d all live long and full lives. (3) If it wasn’t nuclear war, it would be biological weapons: the main reason that the U.S. and the Soviet Union didn’t have massive bioweapons programs was that nuclear weapons were more effective at mass killing. (4) It made sense that the ability to develop devastating biological weapons came at around the same time as we could cure so many diseases. So, immortality and potential doom came together.

These are all just scattered thoughts. There must be some books on the 1918/1919 flu that would give some more perspective on all this.