Amy Whorf McGuiggan’s marvelous story in last week’s Independent about the young man from Provincetown for whom V.F.W. Post No. 3152 was named — Lewis Armstrong Young — noted that Young died in World War I aboard a schooner-rigged gunboat in France, not in battle, but from the 1918 influenza pandemic.
That pandemic is generally acknowledged to have killed more people in one year than any other event in human history. Estimates of the worldwide death toll range from 20 million to 100 million.
The 1918 pandemic was called the “Spanish flu,” and that name persists to this day. (The headline of a New York Times piece by Gina Kolata on March 9 read “Coronavirus Is Very Different From the Spanish Flu of 1918.”) But that influenza did not originate in Spain, nor did Spain suffer from it as much as many other countries. The reason behind the name may surprise you: Spanish journalists.
The world was at war in 1918, and when soldiers and sailors began dying from the flu in large numbers the news was suppressed by the combatant countries. Neither side wanted the other to know how bad it was, and they feared the effect on their own people’s morale. But Spain was neutral in World War I, and its press was uncensored. Spanish newspapers described the terrifying effects of the contagion, which unlike the current coronavirus pandemic, targeted people in the prime of life, in the 20s-to-40s age group.
“What’s going on in Spain?” people asked. The news coverage gave the rest of the world the false impression that the epidemic had started in Spain and that conditions were much worse there than anywhere else. Meanwhile, the massive movement of infected soldiers around the world to unsuspecting locales multiplied the devastation.
It’s too late to change the name now, more than 100 years later, but virologist John Oxford has suggested that, if we could, it would be fairer to call it the “World War flu,” or the “politicians’ flu.” I like the latter choice. It might perhaps remind us that people in power invariably try to downplay and suppress what they consider “bad news,” even when that misrepresentation and suppression will plausibly result in the death of innocent people — even millions of innocent people.
President Trump, who did as much as he could to ridicule and dismiss legitimate warnings about the coronavirus, and who calls it the “Chinese virus,” now claims to be leading a nation at war against it. Perhaps that’s good — better than denial, at least. But as we go to press with this, our 26th issue, marking just half a year of what we hope will be a long life, we are reminded that in war truth is the first casualty.