I had just finished watching the last part of a previously-recorded American Masters special on Miles Davis (“Birth of the Cool” — highly recommended) when my TV, usually tuned to KQED (our Bay Area PBS station), announced the next program on the broadcast schedule: American Experience, Influenza 1918. “Is this something I want to see right now?” I asked myself. Nevertheless, I tuned in.
The DVD of this documentary came out in 2006 and I’m sure it played a big part in inspiring my fellow citizens to get their flu shots each season. The programmers at KQED were right, I think, to air it at this time. (It is available to watch online until April 30). As the two epidemiologists who serve as the main talking heads for the film point out, when this horrible pandemic finally passed, amnesia overtook the country. Our leaders, as well as the population, had thought such a thing could not happen and didn’t want to believe that it could happen again. Magical thinking still prevails, as we have seen, at the highest levels of our government.
Margaret Harris of the World Health Organization said in an interview this morning that Hong Kong and other parts of Asia have responded so well to the current Covid-19 pandemic because they learned from their experience with SARS. They did not choose to forget the nightmares of the past, but chose to prepare for the nightmares of the future.
Based on the for-profit “just in time” manufacturing model, American hospitals do not/did not stockpile supplies; empty beds are not cost-effective. In the public health sphere, money has been gradually drained away at the Federal level over years, with special emphasis on the last three years!
To me, that was why the 1918 influenza story was so enlightening and relevant. At that time, the United States was in the middle of World War I, and those troop ships crowded with soldiers going back and forth to Europe were floating incubators of the flu. Medical people did not know then about viruses, undetectable with an ordinary microscope. Today we can sequence the genes of these insidious invisible enemies!
So here’s the contemporary parallel. “Captain of aircraft carrier struck by virus wants sailors off ship,” says an ABC news report. “In an unusually blunt memo, the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier has warned top Navy leaders that most of his ship’s crew of 5,000 needs to be quarantined ashore in Guam— because he’s concerned that keeping them on the ship would continue the spread of the novel coronavirus. Similar news reports here from The Guardian and CNN.
America could have been better prepared, but alas, as with the climate crisis, denial and wishful thinking abound. The direct connection between climate change and mutating viruses is elucidated in a 1995 book, The Coming Plague by Pulitzer Prize-winning medical journalist Laurie Garrett. I admit I owned the book, read some of it, but donated to the Sonoma Public Library about 10 years ago. Little did I think I would want it today… and Amazon is all sold out.
Put this episode of American Experience on your watch list, but I would view it after the kids have gone to bed.