Historian: ‘Fear’ Caused Economy to Shut Down in 1918 Pandemic, Not Government Orders

This Library of Congress photo shows a demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Science has ticked off some major accomplishments over the last century. The world learned about viruses, cured various diseases, made effective vaccines, developed instant communications and …
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via AP

Widespread public fear, not government orders, drove economic shutdowns in America during the 1918 flu pandemic, said John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, offering his remarks on Wednesday’s edition of SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight with host Rebecca Mansour and special guest host John Hayward.

“I’m probably more concerned about what I regard as premature reopening,” Barry stated. “I think maybe the most important thing is to have in place the ability to identify people who are sick and trace their contacts. If we don’t do that, then there’s very possibly going to be an explosion.”

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, similarly called for the development of fast, reliable, and affordable coronavirus testing technology at businesses in order to safely reopen the economy while providing peace of mind to the pubic.

Barry added, “If we do it right, then I would anticipate seeing not so much another wave — this virus isn’t going away, I think everybody knows that — but sort of undulating swells. Some might be a little bigger than others, but we can keep pace with them [and] get ahead of them, maybe.

Barry warned, “If we don’t do it right, then you’re going to see a hurricane storm surge, and since I’m speaking to you from New Orleans, that has a lot of meaning to me when I say that. In terms of where the public stands, according to the polling that I’ve seen, the public actually is pretty nervous about the real things.”

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“There’s a vocal minority that wants to get going again now, but there’s a lot of concern that it’s too early,” added Barry. “But the reality is, leaders don’t make life and death decisions, they shouldn’t make really any decisions — much less a life and death decision — based on polling data.”

Barry remarked, “The real problem is that all the pain and suffering that [small businesses] have gone through, if we don’t do the reopening correct, that will waste everything they’ve already sacrificed, because we’ll be back where we started, except it’ll be worse than where we started. That’s my real concern. It’s not that I don’t have enormous sympathy for those people. I’m fortunate enough not to be much affected, but they will be in a worse position in the long term.”

“There was a study of cities in 1918,” Barry stated. “Cities that stayed closed longer their economic activity was actually much better after the pandemic than the cities that stayed closes for a shorter period of time.”

Barry continued, “San Antonio was one of the slowest cities in the United States to close anything, and it was just about the earliest city in the United States to reopen. It also had the highest morbidity in the United States [where] 53.5 percent of the entire population got sick and 98 percent of every household had at least one person sick.

Barry noted that varying factors aside from San Antonio’s distinction of being the city with the highest morbidity rate in the country could have been shaped by factors other than its later closure and earlier reopening relative to other cities.

Mansour asked about the differences between governmental directives in 1918 and today.

“They were nowhere near as extreme as what we’ve done,” Barry responded. “It was places of public gathering after work. So bars, restaurants, in most cases no church services, theaters, things like that. There were basically no closing orders of ordinary business operations. Of course, we were in a war, and practically everything was considered an essential service and part of the war effort.”

Barry continued, “Nonetheless, and there is not a lot of data on this except for some very limited war industries like shipbuilding. There was tremendous absenteeism, enough that it certainly affected the economic importance. Streets were empty. In the book, I quoted a Philadelphia doctor who lived 12 miles from the emergency hospital he worked in, and when he went home every day, he saw so few cars on the road, he started counting them. In one day and [over] 12 miles — in the third biggest city in the country — he didn’t see one other car on the road in either direction. He said, ‘The life of the city has almost stopped.'”

Barry added, “Now, that was not because of closing orders. That was because of fear, which was quite effective. It’s just like the photographs you’ve seen of Beijing earlier [where] this vast thoroughfare is totally vacant, or here in New Orleans, I walked through Jackson Square, there’s nobody there. There’s one musician playing where there used to be dozens, and there’s nobody on the street.

Barry concluded, “Today, it’s not so much fear, it’s closing. But in 1918, it was fear.”

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