And things feel eerily familiar today.
One hundred years ago, in May 1918, the so-called Spanish Flu started making people sick in large numbers. As there was a war going on, the news of this was censored everywhere but Spain, which was neutral; that's why everyone thought it was a Spanish Flu. Before it was over, 50 to 100 million people died, 3 to 5 percent of the world's population.
In the spring of 1918 it seemed like a normal flu, affecting the very old and the very young. With a war going on, lots of young men were in close quarters and on the move, spreading it quickly. But by summer the second wave hit and it was different. It affected mainly those between 20 and 40. Pregnant women died in huge numbers; if they were admitted to hospital, the death rate was as high as 71 percent. In the USA alone, 670,000 died.
According to John M. Barry, the government made it worse, mainly because of the war. President Wilson and his Committee on Public Information controlled the news, noting that “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms....The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.” Barry writes in the Smithsonian:
At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States...or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things...necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories...cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”
A hundred years later, things look awfully familiar. Truth and falsehoods are again arbitrary terms. We are still telling people that bikes are healthy (I rode mine all winter, the coughing in the subway scared me). We are still being told to cover our mouths and wash our hands and stay home if we are sick, because 100 years later we still do not have an effective universal flu vaccine. People don't take the vaccines we have because they don't trust anyone anymore.
People did learn lessons from the epidemics. Sanitation was improved. Slums were cleared and overcrowding was reduced. Antibiotics were discovered and vaccines were developed. But it seems so many of the lessons are being forgotten or ignored.
So wash your hands and get on your bike and hope that it doesn't happen again too soon.