Robert Scheer SI Podcast

John Barry: The 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ Was a U.S. Export, But Don’t Call It the Kansas Virus

“The Great Influenza” author gave us a warning 16 years ago that is extremely relevant today: It is always fatal to allow politics to trump science.
“Not in Kansas anymore” by Mr. Fish.

Click to subscribe on: Apple / Spotify / Google Play

Don’t say we weren’t warned.  As President Trump’s subversion of science wreaks havoc with American society, the reappearance on bestseller lists of John Barry’s 2004 classic work, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” is a reminder that presidential irrationality is not unprecedented. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Barry joins host Robert Scheer to compare the two pandemics and the United States’ response to each.   

Back in 1918, Woodrow Wilson was deprived of the jingoism card played by Trump in labeling the current worldwide scourge “the China virus” because the first wave of massive fatalities was exported from a huge military base in Kansas.  Wilson relied on the patriotic fervor of war to play down the health risk in dispatching huge numbers of likely infected US troops to Europe and on to the rest of the world, leading to the death of between 50 to 100 million people, far exceeding the direct human cost of the “Great War” itself. The name “Spanish flu” derived from the first news of the global influenza pandemic being reported by the media in Spain.

“I think that it was clear that in 1918, people died, and in many cases their society began to fray–in some cases, worse than that–because the government was lying,” Barry tells Scheer. “Now, the motivation in 1918 was entirely different than it is today. We were, of course, at war. And going into the war, [Woodrow] Wilson had some legitimate reasons to be concerned about what would happen […]so he created an infrastructure to intensify patriotism, more so than at any other time in our history.

“Because of that context,” the historian continues, “because there was this feeling that anything negative would detract from the war effort, the national government, largely echoed by local governments and echoed by the media […] distorted the truth and in some cases told outright lies about the disease, with very, very horrendous consequences. This time around, it’s more for the political self-interest of the White House that these things are happening.” 

Listen to the full conversation between Barry and Scheer as the two discuss the patriotic  jingoism that was at play during both pandemics as well as other subjects on which the historian is an expert, such as the separation of church and state. 

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, which sounds a bit pretentious, but the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s John Barry, who has written clearly the most important book of this season: The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. But he wrote it, or finished it and published it, 16 years ago, at a time when many people probably thought, well, that happened a long time ago, 1918, 1919, and we’ve now got modern science, and it’s not going to happen. And in fact, that book is now the most important book one could read at this moment in our history of pandemic. 

And I want to say he’s been on the collective New York Times bestseller list now for 16 years, and totaling 52 weeks, and still going strong. So there’s no question that The Great Influenza, John Barry’s book, is now recognized as the classic book, and so forth. However, when it first came out–and I want to refer to the New York Times review. You’ve written op-ed pieces for the New York Times, they’ve singled your book out as notable in every respect, and so forth. But at the time, while they said it’s a great telling of the story, great science reporting, there was a caveat. And what the reviewer said, “Barry feels no compunction about pausing to offer little op-ed digressions on such matters as free speech and the dangers of government repression.” Close quote. Now, when I read your book–recently, in recent times–I felt that was the strength of your book. I didn’t think those were little op-ed digressions; I thought the strength of your book is you pointed out, as we’re now well aware, that political leadership can lead us astray in a pandemic. We certainly have had the example of Donald Trump and all of the mismanagement, and the U.S. now seems to have the worst record in the world, despite our high level of science and our claims to being an accountable democracy. 

And yet the world that you describe back in your book, in 1918-19–and Woodrow Wilson was president; in many ways highly admired for his world leadership and so forth–you actually develop a very negative view of political leadership at that time. And what the New York Times then dismissed as your op-ed digressions seem to me very central to what ails us right now: matters of government repression, free speech, how we should respond to a pandemic in a free society. So could you comment on that?

JB: Yeah. First, thanks very much for having me on. Second, thanks for your comment about the book’s being important. And third, I guess, is your question. I never thought I was writing an op-ed; when I write an op-ed, I write an op-ed. I don’t insert them in books. I think that it was clear that in 1918, people died, and in many cases their society began to fray–in some cases, worse than that–because the government was lying. Now, the motivation in 1918 was entirely different than it is today. We were, of course, at war. And going into the war, Wilson had some legitimate reasons to be concerned about what would happen. You know, the number one demographic group in the country was Germans; he wasn’t confident that German Americans would fight against Germany. There were a lot of Irish Americans; Ireland had just rebelled against Britain. He wasn’t confident Irish Americans would fight on the side of the British. 

So he created an infrastructure to intensify patriotism, more so than at any other time in our history. You know, they had what was called a Committee for Public Information, and the architect of the committee said that there is no difference between truth and falsehood, none’s better than the other, the only thing that matters is its impact. And there were roughly a hundred thousand, what were called “Four Minute Men” who would appear at every public gathering–school board meeting, vaudeville appearance–and give a brief morale-boosting speech, which was often distorting the truth and sometimes outright lying. At the same time, they passed a law that made it punishable by 20 years in jail to, quote, “utter, write, print or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States,” unquote. They aggressively prosecuted this law, and even sent a congressman to jail for more than 10 years under that law. 

So that was the context in which the pandemic arrived. And because of that context, because there was this feeling that anything negative would detract from the war effort, both the national government, largely echoed by local governments and echoed by the media–there was fake news back then, but it was promoted by the government. At any rate, they distorted the truth and in some cases told outright lies about the disease, with very, very horrendous consequences. This time around, it’s more for the political self-interest of the White House that these things are happening. 

RS: But you point out in your book–I mean, I’m all for criticizing Donald Trump. However, in your book you have a very unflattering portrait of Woodrow Wilson. And including criticism of   

his–

JB: Not my favorite president, for a lot of reasons. 

RS: Yeah, but you know, but we forget, we have sort of a varnished view of history, of the media, as if fake news is a current invention, as if the good old days were pristine. And in fact, there was–you know, we have immigrant-bashing now; we had horrendous immigrant-bashing under Wilson. I mean, the patriotism of anyone born elsewhere in the country was questioned. Certainly if they were German or Irish or what have you. And you–you know, as I say, I don’t think those are digressions. And what I think is sort of a masterpiece of reporting–let me be clear about the book. I’m not alone, obviously; it’s been much celebrated. But if I were to recommend, I will recommend this book, I found those digressions to be spot-on for the current situation. 

Let me just take one: blaming the virus on a foreign government. Now, that flu has come to be known to us as the Spanish influenza. The fact is, Spain had nothing to do with it, other than they were neutral in the war, and so it was easier to blame it somehow on the Spanish because they had an honest media, relatively honest media that discussed the flu. Whereas even honest discussion of it was considered unpatriotic in Germany or in the United States. But it’s interesting; what I think is Donald Trump’s greatest distortion is to call this “the China virus.” As if, you know, this national origin. And the whole point about your book is that this terrible pandemic of 1918, the great influenza, which so far anyway had much greater impact for the world–between 50 million and 100 million people died–this thing started in Kansas. In Haskell County, Kansas, in 1918, then spread to Camp Funston, a very large, the second-largest military base in the country, 300 miles away, where you had 56,000 young troops. And then spread to the whole world–spread to Latin America, spread to Europe, spread to Asia and so forth. Yet we don’t think of that influenza as the American influenza, or the Kansas influenza.

JB: Right. Well first, you know, I did advance the hypothesis about Kansas, but I was careful to say we don’t really know. There are other hypotheses as to where it originated, including China, France, Vietnam, even New York City. So we don’t really know where it started. As you said, it got the name “Spanish influenza” because the Spanish media discussed it, and the rest of the–at least the warring countries all censored their press. The U.S., it was self-censorship, but it was very effective nonetheless. And that’s where it got its name. And it wasn’t so much a plan to blame Spain, because that first wave–the influenza virus was very different from Covid-19. There are a lot of similarities, lot of differences. 

RS: Yeah. But you do say very clearly–hello? Yeah, but you do say the evidence certainly suggests “that a new influenza”–I’m quoting from the book–“virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas, early in 1918”–

JB: I definitely said that. I can say that, you know–and I even wrote a scientific journal article on that, which got quite a bit of traction at the time. You know, I will say there’s been a lot of work done since that book came out, and you know, it’s–actually I may have shifted my own view as to where it began. I still think Kansas is a possibility, but I think it’s less likely than China, to tell you the truth, right now. I could go into the reasons why I’ve changed my mind, but you know, things happen, you get new information, and you change your mind, if you’ve got a brain at any rate.

RS: Yeah, but in terms of the containment–again, I’m only going by the book–you say that it could have been contained. Maybe even at that stage, a medicine–it was not recognized, people didn’t respond to the original doctor who in Kansas sounded the alarm. And clearly the existence of the huge Fort Riley encampment of Camp Funston, where tens of thousands of troops were then sent to Europe, even though clearly this virus had been unleashed. Whether its origin [was there] or not, it was certainly visibly unleashed in Kansas, and these same troops then went and brought it to Europe. And I’m just talking about the chauvinism involved in President Trump’s depiction of origin, is that to blame the inefficiency or the incompetency of another system. In this case, there’s no question that because of the war, because of troop movement, that this virus did have a lot to do with being spread from Kansas to Europe and then elsewhere.

JB: That’s correct. Pretty much every contemporary observer, including Nobel Laureate Macfarlane Burnet, who spent most of his life studying influenza, thought that it arrived, you know, with American troops in the spring of 1918 in Europe. No question about it.

RS: So it gets to–just as a caution, because we’re despairing of the current moment and the intrusion of politics into the management of a pandemic. And I’m not trying to get President Trump off the hook. But your book is a reality check on how politics always intrudes. And in this case, it was to not dampen the war fever; in fact, the pandemic killed more people than the war. And there was an attempt to deny its significance, because it would withdraw enthusiasm for the war. I mean, it’s just, to my mind, I’m defending your book saying this was not some op-ed digression. It really goes to the major problem that happens in any pandemic, which is the loss of reason and being sensible about things, and panic or misuse or political ignorance controlling the narrative. That, I think, is–

JB: I certainly agree with that. You know, there are exceptions. This time around, certainly, there are some countries that have done a very, very good job in terms of telling the truth to the public and also containing the virus. I don’t think that’s a coincidence; I think those two things are very closely related. By the same token, you know, as we saw with Ebola, as we saw with the 2009 pandemic, as we saw with SARS, a lot of places, countries, either didn’t tell the truth or panicked in some form or another, and the result was either economic damage that should not have happened, or people dying. You know, those things that I just cited, in most cases, obviously the death toll was not that large; the worst would have been Ebola. Certainly politics got into that, lack of trust of health care people, health care workers actually being killed when they were trying to take care of people in some places. So politics does intrude.

RS: Yeah, and again–I’m not going to harp on this anymore, but what happened in the great pandemic that you wrote about, the great influenza crisis, was that, you know, logic didn’t prevail, and adults were not watching the store. We had a war to win, the Germans had a war to win, and in fact this other war, against nature, was in fact ignored or played down because it was thought that it demoralized people. We’re getting that now with a lot of–and you wrote an op-ed piece recently for the New York Times–we’re getting that a lot on the economy. The economy has to march on, we have to have prosperity and so forth. And it gets in the way of science. And I just felt your book was a refreshing reminder that it has always been thus. That political convenience very often trumps science. And a revered figure–certainly Donald Trump will not be anywhere near as revered as Woodrow Wilson, although he’s come in for his criticism. But as I say, reading your book, it doesn’t describe our functioning of our republic in a very flattering way a hundred years ago. 

JB: Unfortunately, you are correct.

RS: [Laughs] OK. So let me give you a proper introduction, because I have become a big fan–

JB: Thank you. 

RS: –late in life, sorry, but we’re not that different in age. But I’ve become a big fan, and it’s brought me back to look at your other work and so forth. A very famous book, [Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America], a lot of lessons there about the environment and what have you. And one that caught my attention–and frankly, I have not read it yet. [Laughs] I’m going to devote the rest of this week to reading it. [Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.] And it was published in 2012. And it’s, basically, it’s been put in the reviews as sort of the conflict between John Winthrop and the “city on the hill,” a kind of religious view of God’s gift to America that Donald Trump and other people would quote quite often. And Roger Williams, who believed in the community of conscience, and was banished from the Massachusetts colony. 

Now, I bring that up because, again, in our current pandemic there are a lot of appeals for abandoning freedom and democracy and so forth in the name of security, all over the world. In China, for example, you know, obviously they use smartphones and everything else in a very invasive way to control behavior. But they’re not alone. And there’s a lot of talk that surveillance is needed at every turn. And in times of crisis, we tend to abandon notions of individual freedom and privacy and so forth. So maybe we should just talk a little bit about how this was an argument, as you describe it, before we had a Constitution, but certainly informed our Constitution, which is why we have separation of church and state.  

JB: Well, yeah, Williams is a fascinating figure. He was a Puritan minister; he was no atheist, or for that matter agnostic. Extremely devout. And literally the day he arrived in Massachusetts he was offered the post as minister of the church in Boston, because he had such a stellar reputation in England. He declined because he didn’t think the members of that church were pure enough for him. Nonetheless, you know, he came into repeated conflict with the authorities in Massachusetts, because he believed that, you know, when you mix–to put it in today’s terms–when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. You know, essentially–of course, England at the time had a state church, precisely a state church. In Massachusetts, in effect, they wanted to erect a state church. And he believed that anytime you do that, you are going to corrupt the church. And he also believed that people made mistakes. That–for example, he was a linguist and recognized that translations of the Bible put very different interpretations on Scripture. And simply reconciling that was beyond human capability; you don’t know what actually was meant by God, assuming you believe in God. And therefore people were prone to error, and therefore you had to have freedom of conscience, freedom to believe whatever you thought. 

Another kind of–not kind of, very interesting element of the thinking that Williams developed, he had been amanuensis to someone named Cook, and English jurist who was chief justice of the King’s bench in England. He was the one who first applied habeas corpus against the Crown. He set precedents for judicial review of legislative acts, he set precedents for no double jeopardy in criminal trial. He’s arguably the greatest jurist in English history. And he also wrote, when he was in Parliament, what was called the Petition of Right. “Petition” was not meant then as a request; they, you know, it was unanimously passed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and they forced King Charles to agree to it. And it included several of the amendments of our Bill of Rights, and the habeas corpus clause of the Constitution, and all sorts of things. 

And the sense of individual freedom that he learned from Cook literally at his side, I think, was probably influential in the way that he developed the sense of, again, the freedom of conscience. He was really the first person to articulate individual liberty in a way that we would really recognize it in modern terms. He’s not recognized for that as much as he should be. He is pretty well known as the first person to really articulate separation of church and state in a modern way. 

RS: So let me ask you a question to tie these two themes together. You would think that in the midst of a raging pandemic, that in a nation that claims to be rooted in religion–of one kind or another, but we always invoke a notion of an almighty, and even politically, every politician has to do it and so forth. Given that historical reference of four centuries ago and so forth, isn’t it surprising there seems to be very little connection by way of explanation of this pandemic with the wrath of God, or the judgment of an almighty for our behavior? Was that true in 1918? Would it have been true in the 17th century? 

JB: Well, you know, I don’t know about the 17th century and pandemics. I think they attributed almost everything to heavenly intervention, at least some did. In 1918, there was not that much talk about gods punishing anyone. There were, you know, many cities closed churches; you know, we had the social distancing, the non-pharmaceutical interventions, and so forth, very similar to what we’ve done today. And there were many ministers who insisted that no one worshiping God could ever possibly get sick, which of course was utter nonsense. But beyond that, I think it may have been too widespread around the world, and I think it was recognized that that was the case, for people to claim that it was a punishment by God. In addition, when I say “widespread,” maybe thinking about it another way is people rarely think God is punishing them. God is always going to be punishing someone else for their sins; they’re never punishing you for your sins. And since pretty much everybody was suffering, if they had blamed the almighty, it would have been blaming themselves. Maybe that’s an explanation for why I did not run across much of that in my research. I didn’t explicitly look for it, but you know, certainly I did enough reading that I think I would have been struck by it had it happened. 

RS: So that’s interesting. And so in this case, it might be godless communism in China that’s responsible for their punishment, but then again why has the U.S. suffered much more than China with its very large population. Let me ask you, tie this up with your feeling about how we get out of this, and what the price will be. Because you immersed yourself in the culture of the great influenza pandemic, and you saw the points of sanity and the points of irrationality. And this concern now, will our democracy–such as it is, flawed as it is–survive? We have an appeal for the surveillance state, we have an appeal for more intrusive government, we have a president who seems determined to hurt this kind of representative government in accountability. What do you think? In your op-ed pieces, you said if we do the right thing, it’ll sort of all work out. Do you still have that view? And what is your prognosis?

JB: Well, that’s the remarkable thing about this disease, is that we can exert an enormous amount of control over what happens. So far, we have been extremely limited in what we have done in terms of the impact, because a very significant percentage of the American public has not paid enough attention to the recommendations. You know, in the U.S. I don’t think there’s been a lot of talk about the surveillance, and Bluetooth and so forth, and whose cell phones cross paths, who may or may not–you know, there’s been speculation about it, but–and there have been some efforts in a couple of states for voluntarily downloading apps and so forth and so on, that would allow that kind of surveillance. But certainly nationally, that’s not been the case. 

You know, we still can control the course of the disease until we get a vaccine. Whether we’re going to do that or not remains to be seen. We also could still face a worst-case scenario in which the disease absolutely explodes. In that last–you know, I’ve written six op-eds, basically one a month since this thing started. The first one was in January, predicting that we were in for it; in April, I predicted that summer would not provide relief. In the last one, I quoted a Morgan Stanley model–and of course they’re not interested in politics; all they’re interested in is dollars. And they were projecting 150,000 cases a day when the weather gets colder if we do not change the way we’re behaving. You know, that’s reasonably close to a worst-case. And you know, that’s according to a financial industry model. That scares me, and it scares a lot of people. 

But again, the thing is, in a way it’s self-correcting. You know, even in the Southern states–where obviously politically they lean pretty heavily toward Trump; certainly all but one of the governors do. You know, those states exploded, but when the disease got bad people started doing the right thing, and they have brought cases down dramatically in those states. You know, whether people will continue to do the right thing, and continue to exercise control, or whether or not they’re going to relax–you know, that’s impossible to predict. It’s easier to predict the virus than it is to predict human behavior, particularly given the political context here. 

RS: That’s a–that’s a money quote: it’s easier to predict the virus than human behavior. In that regard, one important point in your book–[there are] many important points in your book. But why don’t you take us through the difference between the W and the V projection? And it seems that as opposed to the great influenza that you write about of 100 years ago, which did hit younger people–certainly middle-aged and younger, less so centering on older folks like the two of us. One reason for a more careless attitude around the world–because they’re having trouble in Germany now, and in France, getting younger people to follow more careful behavior. This flu, this virus is different, isn’t it? 

JB: Very much so. That’s one of the two biggest differences between the viruses. In 1918, roughly 95% of the excess mortality was people younger than 65. It’s practically, not quite the reverse, but it’s almost the reverse today. The peak age for death in 1918 was 28. Roughly two-thirds of the dead were people between 18 and 45 years old. So you didn’t have younger people, obviously, going out and partying, not caring because they weren’t affected. You know, as I’m sure everybody listening already knows, this time around it seems the younger you are, the less likely you are to get severely ill. Although kids, it seems, probably can transmit disease, but they’re no more likely to transmit than an adult is–unlike ordinary influenza, seasonal influenza, where kids are superspreaders. 

The other really significant difference between the two viruses is duration. Everything from the incubation period to how long you’re sick, how long you’re infectious, and so forth and so on, is much, much, much longer with coronavirus than with influenza. And that means that the time frame for everything is stretched out. And then on top of that, when we intervene to save people’s lives–intervene to interrupt transmission, to save people’s lives–that stretches things out even longer, which puts enormous economic stress on the society, which did not happen in 1918. At least not in the–there was plenty of economic stress, but it was compressed into a much, much shorter period. In any particular city, the disease would probably pass through it anywhere from six to 10 weeks, and then pretty much it was gone; sometimes there was another wave, you know, weeks or months later, but that economic hit was very short-lived. And then, you know, it was a pretty steep recession, but there was a very rapid recovery. Here, we’re not seeing that.

RS: Well, in that regard–and maybe this is a good concluding point–we began with the politics and the, actually, the jingoism or chauvinism of “blame it on the other.” And you have a really compelling discussion in your book of the limits of jingoism, because here was both the German and the opposition allied army in World War I, being thwarted by the illness, by the virus. What Donald Trump has called “the invisible enemy.” And yet that enemy, invisible enemy, is really what destroyed the Germans and brought the war to an end. When we look at the current world view, it seems to me every country has been more successful, whether they’re a developed country, whether they’re advanced economically, whether they’re democratic, whether they’re a theocracy, whether they’re a residue of communism, whatever. Every single country in the world has done a better job than the United States. And this is with a president who said he would make us great again, and I’m not singling out saying that he is the only reason. But nonetheless, this is a spectacular outcome that was not true in the great influenza of 100 years ago. There was success and failure as it moved around the world, and it basically to concluded. Isn’t that a surprising development, that the country with the highest level of medical science–that wasn’t true of the U.S. in 1918, as you point out. Certainly one could make the claim now. And yet with the best medical establishment, the highest level of science, literacy, et cetera, et cetera, we have a startlingly worse record.

JB: Certainly worse than every other developed country in the world. There may be a couple of countries, notably Brazil, for one, which has been Trumpian except more so. You know, maybe some other countries like Iran, where the leadership has point-blank lied to the public. They may or may not have worse outcomes in the end than the United States. But certainly in terms of, as you say, developed countries, and including most of the less developed world, the U.S. trails far behind. You know, I think right now we’re approximately tied for third in the world in per capita deaths. The thing is, the other countries that are roughly equivalent, almost nobody is dying in those countries right now, and we are still recording roughly a thousand deaths a day. So there’s a very good chance that we will overtake every country in the world and have the highest per capita death toll. Obviously we have, you know, a tremendous number of cases. India did just this weekend surpass us for the number of daily cases, but India is a much, much bigger country. You know, I guess four or five times the population that we have. And the irony is, prior to the pandemic the World Health Organization rated countries on preparedness, and rated the United States as number one in the world. That is tremendous irony.

RS: Let me take that last statement, though. Because there’s a school of thought, and certainly a lot of Democrats advance this, that without Trump, if there had been someone else as president, this didn’t have to happen. Ah–

JB: That’s absolutely correct. Forget about Democrat or Republican, you know. I mean, that is a statement of fact. It is incomprehensible to every person in public health that the United States has performed as poorly as it has. And the problem rests squarely on, you know, the White House. I mean, that’s it. You know, from putting his scientific advice aside, this baloney on masks going back and forth, the terrible examples he is setting–yeah. I don’t think any informed, honest Republican who knows anything about public health or infectious disease would have the slightest disagreement on that issue.

RS: So let me just push one little bit further, and even saying that, isn’t there something about our system of–first of all, our emphasis on the economy; our state, our federal system where states do have a lot of power; and a notion–particularly among the younger people, who are the ones who are resisting a lot of the instruction–that we’re actually, in this war with nature, up against some limits of individual freedom? Now, in your book, you advance the case for individual freedom, in that it corrects error, it gets us to confront truth, and that’s a compelling and important argument. But also, there’s something about the indulgence of one’s taste, of one’s need to get to the beach, or to consume, or to prosper, that seems to be at work here. And going back to the notion of the common good–is that not being tested?

JB: Well, there’s always a balance. You know, certainly seat belts are an infringement on your freedom, and really the only person you hurt by not wearing one is yourself. And yet we have laws on seat belts. And smoking–you can’t smoke in public areas now, because that kills other people; you’re not just affecting yourself, if you want to smoke in your own home and risk your health that’s your business. But you can’t smoke in public areas. I would think that’s a pretty good analogy for the situation right now. You know, Trump has not communicated that at all, much less has he done it effectively. And you know, when you’re in a society, yes, you have to make some compromises to live in that society. You cannot simply entirely indulge your own whims. 

RS: Well, that’s a good way to tie it up. So you would give Trump even a lower grade than Woodrow Wilson, right?

JB: By a wide margin. Plus, remember, Wilson’s motivation was to win the war. He didn’t do it for any personal gain. Trump’s motivation is to advance his own personal interests. And the irony is, the great irony is that the only time his approval ratings cracked 50% was a couple of days after he said we were at war with the virus. Because people rally around leadership in a crisis. And if he had performed properly, not only would we have at least tens of thousands, and possibly more than a hundred thousand fewer dead, but the economy would be in a better condition. You know, to quote my, I guess most recent op-ed, I think August 18, something like that, I forgot the–doesn’t matter when it was. You know, he saw the economy–

RS: By the way, it was August 18, yeah.

JB: OK. He saw the economy and public health as antagonistic. And they are not antagonists, they are dance partners. And health takes the lead in that dance. In the op-ed I pointed out Germany has 6.4% unemployment. We’re over 10%. You know, German restaurants today are actually doing more business than they were at the same time last year. Our restaurants are still in the tank. And the reason was Germany took care of the virus. Now, there is a significant upsurge right now, but compared to the United States, it’s still trivial. You know, it’s not government regulation that forced the airlines to cancel thousands of flights, and when they do fly in many cases the planes weren’t full, and they were about to lay off tens of thousands of employees. That’s not because of government regulation, that’s because people were afraid to fly. And if you had taken out the virus, if you had controlled the virus properly, then the economy would be in much better shape. And frankly, Trump would have had a much better shot at reelection. 

RS: Yeah. Last point, though, on that–you don’t mention China. And one theme that comes out clearly in your book around World War I, the Great War, was the use of a notion of patriotism and loyalty and its intrusion on science. And as we head into this general election, the last weeks really, Trump is already revving up China, China, China, the Chinese virus, the Chinese attacked us, this invisible enemy. And that is an echo of what happened in 1918-19: blaming the virus as sort of an other, a foreigner. And isn’t it true, if one looks at it objectively now, whatever China’s initial responsibility, it isn’t just Germany, it isn’t just societies much more like our own, but China actually has handled this in a way that few people seem to be willing to admit, quite effectively, and brought back normalcy.

JB: Well, and you’re right.

RS: I know that’s controversial. I don’t want to stick you with that. But it’s kind of a big thing out there that nobody wants to talk about. 

JB: China, you know, they certainly infringed on individual freedoms. There’s no question about that. But they have controlled the virus, and crowds are back in China. But free countries have also done a pretty good job controlling the virus. For example in Taiwan, you know, crowds are back at baseball games. You can do it and still have a free society. New Zealand has done it, Austria has done a pretty good job, Germany. A lot of countries have done it right, and almost all of them have done, as you said earlier, a better job than the United States. And every developed country has done a better job than the United States.

RS: Well, that’s a way to wrap it up. I want to thank you, John Barry. Everybody knows the book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. I want to thank you for your contribution to this debate, a number of others. I also want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW FM, the public radio station in Santa Monica that carries these programs. Natasha Hakimi, who writes the intro. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And most of all, Joshua Scheer, who is the producer of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week with another edition. Take care.

JB: OK, thank you very much.

6 comments

  1. Regarding the south bringing its cases it down, I can assure Barry that it wasn’t by free choice that (white) southerners took measures to do so. I live here, they were forced against their will by various governors via executive orders to wear masks in public & social distance.

    Our governor here in NC, Roy Cooper, put the onus of responsibility of enforcement on businesses, in which case all that did was enable owners and managers to put that on workers who are highly untrained train for it. Nevertheless southerners by and large, especially white rural ones, are big anti-maskers and anti-science hoaxers and all that. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, they still want to go on about as normal as possible, public welfare be damned. So let’s not dish out a lot of credit to Southerners for somehow being responsible and what not. They’re not.

    However for the past week, NC’s numbers are going up. Thanks largely to universities opening wide-up, kids partying, notably the Greeks, and now they’re down there shutting back down.

    Robert brings up a great point, this still would have happened if Hillary was president. Just as she turned to Wall Street after the ‘08 crash and asked them to come to Washington to fix the problems (ones they created mind you), today she would’ve gone directly to Pfizer, Purdue, and other big Pharma types, along with insurance corporations, and ask them to come to Washington and fix this public health crisis. Unlike Wall Street, the medical establishment didn’t cause this pandemic, but they would have to run profit/loss analyses before taking the first step, which would’ve led to a large number of unnecessary deaths. We still would’ve been screwed anyway, it’s just that the media would’ve covered for Hillary.

    While Trump shoulders a lot of blame for the poor response no question, I can’t agree with Barry and that this is all on his administration. We have an incredibly profitized medical system that has been full-on corporatized for decades that has produced increasingly worse results for patients. You can’t look at a medical system like we have, one that only focuses on treatments and deliberately avoids creating cures while simultaneously loading patients with unpayable debt, and say “yeah this is a good stable system“.

    A few months ago, Dylan Ratigan specified steps this government should have taken: monthly UBI, field hospitals, contact tracing, Medicare For All, near total shutdown of the economy to keep people inside and safe. But outside of the laughable $1200 one-time payment, none of that has really happened. Contact tracing exist but in such a small amount it’s negligible. So now as a result, we’ve been in this hole for longer than acceptable, and there’s no meaningful sign that America will cease being the world’s worst country at handling this.

    1. yet the nations that never declared covid martial law enjoy the fewest deaths per capita—those that dead r the most afflicted

    2. false —covid fatalities worse in nations that declared covid fascism
      fake data
      “amerikans believe anything described as scientific without question”. G Gorer

  2. now censoring here
    US had zero to w WWI
    nations that declared covid martial law r far more afflicted than those that didn’t

  3. why does sheer post fake news about SEnegel from USA Today?
    these are lies—vast evidence that testing unreliable
    the bar graph is fake the nations w the most covid fatalities per capita all declared martial law and require masks—Belgium, Spain, France, Peru, Italy (north)
    Russia tests more per capita than all nations
    of the 12000 deaths attributed 2/3 occurred the only city that “locked down” and required masks—Moscow….nations that didn’t far fewer deaths per capita—Russia, Belarus, Netherlands, Uruguay, South Dakota, Sweden (where nearly all deaths were in elderly care homes),Madagascar, Rwanda etc
    fake science

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: