I spent the weekend reading The Great Influenza by John M. Barry about the flu of 1918-19, which took the lives of 35 million people as it swept the world. The virus actually started in the U.S., in Haskell County, Kansas. It then spread to Europe, carried by American soldiers arriving to fight World War I. It became known as the Spanish Flu as the result of a misunderstanding; Spain was one of the few countries in which the government, determined to keep popular opinion behind the war effort, had not initiated strict censorship laws, so the Spanish media’s extensive coverage of the disease led people to believe Spain was the country of origin.
The U.S. Government had launched a concerted effort to control the media to ensure support for American intervention in World War I. The Committee on Public Information was run by George Creel, a former journalist, who recruited such notables as Booth Tarkington, Charles Dana Gibson and PR great Ed Bernays to make newsreels and write articles for placement in newspapers. The Committee recruited 75,000 so-called “Four Minute Men” who would travel the U.S. giving speeches and attending salon dinners. There was a strict censorship effort, including use of the U.S. Post Office to bar traitorous materials (meaning German language publications) and to revoke reduced rate mailings for publications that dared to oppose the American war effort. Among the low points of the effort was a poster of a German as a gorilla with a war helmet wielding a large club and abducting an American woman.
The business community focused on keeping commerce humming rather than emphasizing public safety. Local business leaders played a role in preventing accurate reporting. Outside Des Moines, Iowa, was a military outpost, Fort Dodge, where hundreds of soldiers were dying of influenza. The Greater Des Moines Committee, with the help of the state’s attorney, warned the publishers of local papers, “If anything is to be printed in regard to the disease, it needs to be confined to simple preventative measures, something constructive and not destructive.”
The media was complicit. According to Barry, “As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. They terrified by making little of it. For what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured. “Literary Digest, one of the largest circulation magazines, ran a story titled, “Fear Is Our First Enemy.” The Associated Press, reporting on the outbreak at Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, said, “To dispel alarm caused throughout the country by exaggerated stories, Captain Moffat said the situation is much improved and the death rate is only 1.5%, well below the death rate in the East,” just as the military imposed lockdowns on nearby bases Fort Sheridan and Great Lakes Aviation center, the largest armed forces training concentration in the U.S.
Public health officials failed. Philadelphia had a huge Navy Yard full of sick sailors and construction workers. Yet, Dr. Wilmer Krusen, the city’s director of public health “had done absolutely nothing. He denied that influenza posed a threat to the city, made no contingency plans for supplies and no lists of medical personnel.” His chief contribution was to start a mass publicity campaign against spitting and coughing. Even as the numbers of dead and hospitalized were soaring, he allowed the Liberty Loan parade to proceed, with thousands of marchers and several hundred thousand spectators. Within two days, the epidemic swept through the civilian population, to such an extent that 4,500 people died in a day. Even as the hospitals flooded with patients, Krusen said, “Don’t get frightened or panic stricken over exaggerated reports.”
The most important challenge in a pandemic is to maintain the free flow of information so that people can make informed decisions to protect themselves. This was evident in 1918, then repeated in 2009 during avian flu and in 2014 with Ebola; society is unable to manage a crisis without facts. According to Barry, “The biggest problem lies in the relationship between governments and the truth. Political leaders must understand the truth and be able to handle the truth…Too many political leaders ignored the plans for pandemic. The lies of officials and of the press never allowed the terror to condense into concrete. The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”
The next three to six months will be the crucible for institutions. The business community will have to make decisions on how to go back to work and demonstrate tangible change such as personal protective equipment for employees, adequate spacing for consumers in public facilities and health passports for travelers. The mainstream media needs to continue its aggressive coverage of the story to ensure that public officials are held to account. NGOs will have to be the vital bridge to the community, providing food and medication to those in need. The biggest question is whether government will allow public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci to determine the safe path back to a new normal, or push for a rapid re-opening of bars and restaurants that has prompted a reinstitution of a lockdown in South Korea. The lessons of 1918 are there for all to remember—and choose to learn from.
Richard Edelman is CEO.