They say history is cyclical. That until we learn from our mistakes, we will have to face the same problems, stumble over the same stone, over and over again. Because each problem, although it may be a source of anguish or even shake our world, it is also an opportunity to correct our mistakes and grow.
In these times, there is a story that comes back from the past taking on special relevance. It is much more than the story of a pandemic, it is the story of truth – or rather of the concealment of truth and its consequences. It is the story of half truths, of indolence, of closing the eyes, of wanting to cover the sun with a finger. It is the story that validates that “The worst truth only costs a great pain, but the best lie costs many small sufferings and at the end, an enormous pain”, as Jacinto Benavente wrote.
The past is back with coronavirus
It all started on March 4, 1918, when Albert Gitchel, a cook at Camp Fuston in Kansas, began to experience cough, fever, and headache. His was one of the first cases of the so-called Spanish flu. In just three weeks, 1,100 soldiers had already been hospitalized and thousands more were infected.
However, since the United States was fully mobilized for the First World War, the authorities did not want to create panic, but rather go ahead with the war plans. What started out confined to Army camps, where 25% of the soldiers fell ill, quickly spread to the civilian population.
A doctor at a US Army camp wrote: “These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of flu or influenza, but when they are brought to the hospital, they develop very quickly the most vicious type of pneumonia I have ever seen … Hours later comes death … It is horrible. One can bear to see one, two, or twenty men die, but not see these poor devils fall like flies… We have been an averaging over 100 deaths a day… We have lost a scandalous number of nurses and doctors.”
However, the terrible experience that the doctors were living in the field did not find an echo in society. In the rest of the countries at war, the press also played the game of politics, refraining from reporting the spread of the infection. In the United States, a law was also passed punishing with 20 years of prison for “Pronouncing, printing, writing, or publishing any unfair, profane, scandalous, or abusive language about the United States government.” That meant a person could go to jail for criticizing the government, even if what he was saying was true, as researchers at the Washington Institute of Medicine pointed out.
Philidelphia was an example of all that could be done wrong and the terrible cost of lies – or half-truths. Despite the fact that the flu had already begun to spread around the city in mid-September, Wilmer Krusen, the then director of public health in Philadelphia, assured that nothing was wrong. He declared that “He would circumscribe this disease to its current limits” and that “We are sure that we will succeed”. When the first deaths occurred, he downplayed them saying that it was a “simple flu” or an “old type of influenza”, in no way was it was the Spanish flu. Another city health official said: “From now on, the disease will decrease”, according to the Smithsonian.
Since “nothing was happening”, the Liberty Loan Parade on September 28 was held normally. This parade would raise millions of dollars in war bonds. However, three days later the bill began to arrive for the long and crowded procession where at least 200,000 people participated: the 31 hospitals in Philadelphia overflowed and by the end of the week, 2,600 people had died.
Other cities followed that modus operandi. While in Chicago the death rate in a hospital reached almost 40%, people continued to crowd public transportation and healthcare personnel were infected because they could not take precautionary measures, the city’s public health commissioner then proclaimed: “The concern kills more people than the epidemic.” That was the feeling and the general political reaction.
Fortunately, all the authorities did not react in the same way. St. Luis, for example, kept the population informed even before the first cases occurred in the city and as soon as they detected the first outbreak, they adopted isolation measures. In Philadelphia weekly deaths totaled 748 per 100,000 while in St. Louis they were 358 per 100,000, less than half, as reported by National Geographic.
The problem was further exacerbated because “Several local health authorities refused to disclose the number of people affected and the deaths. Consequently, it was very difficult to assess the impact of the disease at that time”, according to researchers at the University of Genoa. This made it impossible to make precise estimates at the epidemiological level and, of course, to take more effective measures to contain the contagion and reduce the number of deaths.
Chronicle of an unannounced disaster
The main objective of this nonsense was to prevent the population from becoming alarmed since they already suffered from the deprivations caused by the First World War, as well as to keep their morale high so that they could continue fighting.
Perhaps, deep down, those rulers who had to make decisions for tens of thousands of other people thought that “It wouldn’t be that bad.” They closed their eyes to the data and turned deaf to the claims of the doctors with the secret illusion that everything would pass. But nothing passed. Because closing our eyes to reality will not make that reality disappear. And sooner or later the consequences will hit us with all their harshness.
“The combination of rigid control and disregard for the truth had dangerous consequences”, as historians indicated. Ignoring the risk or putting other interests before general health caused decisions to be made late and badly. The lies, inventions and minimizations of what was happening by many public officials who used the media to misinform, ended up destroying the credibility of the sources of authority.
The result was that there was a terrible disconnection and lack of confidence. People felt they had no one to turn to and no one to trust. Later, when the containment measures went into effect, many ordinary citizens refused to pay attention to the experts, who by now were stripped of all credibility because it had become impossible to distinguish between truth and lies.
Obviously, not informing the population well only served to postpone the alarm, which was generated anyway when news of the sick and the deaths began to spread by word of mouth. When the deaths were not a distant figure in a newspaper, but it was death itself knocking on the door of the house or the neighboring door. That mismanagement, added to an inadequate public health infrastructure and the limited scientific knowledge of the time, ended up causing more than 500 million infections worldwide and claiming the lives of more than 50 million people.
The truth, if it is not complete, becomes an ally of the lie
Serenity and trust are the two blocks that prevent us from crossing the fine line that exists between a hard truth and the panic of fear-mongering. When we try to hide truth under a fictitious and sweetened veil, serenity and confidence transmute into chaos and disbelief. And that is never good. Neither personally nor socially.
It is true that we all do not have the same psychological tools to deal with a difficult truth, but we all must have the opportunity to prepare ourselves in time to face that reality, as best we can. We need to move from the state of initial shock to a state of adjustment as soon as possible. But if we do not know what we are facing, we will go from one shock to another, without ever being able to reach that level of preparation that provides us with the necessary balance to face the storm.
There is no doubt that to resist an epidemic we need an injection of continuous optimism. We need to know that although things are going wrong, at some point they will go better. Hope is what keeps us fighting. However, that hope cannot be based on false illusions or white lies because rather sooner than later it will turn into anger and frustration.
We also need concrete signs about what will happen – or what could happen. We need to prepare ourselves psychologically. Taking us away that possibility – with the inexcusable excuse that they are protecting us psychologically – is nonsense.
In moments of uncertainty, when there is no clear path, transparency and trust become our compasses. Taking them away from us can imply condemnation, literally and metaphorically. Because as Lope de Vega said, “No one can depart from the truth without harming himself.” And perhaps that is a lesson that some have forgotten.
Martini, M. et. Al. (2019) The Spanish Influenza Pandemic: a lesson from history 100 years after 1918. J Prev Med Hyg; 60(1): E64–E67.
Aligne, C. A. (2016) Overcrowding and Mortality During the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. Am J Public Health; 106(4): 642-644.
Stacey, L. et. Al. (2005) The Threat of Pandemic Influenza. Are We Ready? Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.