Leadership vacuum with the 1918 Spanish flu an omen for what could come

The flu killed roughly 50 million worldwide, negatively shaping the global order for years afterward. In the U.S., restrictive immigration laws and a rise in hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan followed.



May 14, 2020 - 10:19 AM

The turn away from internationalism in the aftermath of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 awakened xenophobia at home. In this photo from 1922, members of the Ku Klux Klan are about to take off with literature that was scattered over Washington’s Virginia suburbs during a Klan parade.

The historian in me is fascinated by how Americans in crisis make use of the past to predict the future. To those inclined to look backward, the so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 offers pundits the obvious historical analogy to our own COVID-19 moment.

A century ago, the flu killed roughly 50 million people worldwide, negatively shaped the global order for years afterward and was spectacularly mishandled by political leaders trying mightily to ignore it.

The Spanish influenza offers a painful cautionary lesson at odds with what I’m reading by today’s futurists — many of whom have adopted a “creative destruction” metaphor to describe the impact of COVID-19. According to their reasoning, the misery inflicted by the coronavirus will pave the way for universal health care, a renaissance of American manufacturing and cities, better public epidemiology, more accountable politicians, a global population hardened by “herd immunity” and the end of science denial.

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