Using some of my extra time during this pandemic, I recently read “The Great Influenza” by John Barry, which describes in detail the last great global pandemic of 1918-19. I found strong echoes of our current experience. As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Yes, some things are different — a century ago, the U.S. was more rural and dispersed, our knowledge of medical science was in its infancy, mass communication was relatively primitive, and we had just entered a world war. But the parallels with today are striking.
The pandemic arose among soldiers, new recruits, tightly packed in hastily built camps around the country — a circumstance not unlike the initial outbreaks in nursing homes this year.
The pandemic struck in several waves, causing an estimated 675,000 U.S. deaths (out of a population of 105 million) — a grim portent for our death toll, now at 200,000 and growing.
And perhaps most relevant for us in this electoral season, there was also at that time a lamentable absence of U.S. leadership at the top. President Woodrow Wilson, preoccupied by our military buildup in Europe, never issued a national strategy. He left countermeasures and public information to local authorities, with chaotic results. Sound familiar?
Writing in 2009, years ago, Barry concluded: “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis...The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other.”
What is the meaning of this for us today? It is that we desperately need a government that can speak frankly to its people and that will chart an effective plan of action to deal effectively with the current crisis. It means that we give the Biden-Harris ticket not only a victory, but a strong mandate. And that we support national leadership down the line in Virginia with the vigorous, progressive voices of Mark Warner and Jennifer Wexton in the Congress and Irina Khanin as our Delegate for the 29th District of the Virginia House of Delegates.