The excitement is palpable. Vaccines are being injected into people’s arms, schools are reopening, Instagram feeds are flooded with “Fauci ouchie” selfies, the weather is heating up, the sun is out past 7 p.m., and the promise of a post-pandemic summer has Americans frenzied with the anticipation of a 6-year-old waiting to go downstairs on Christmas morning.
If you believe the hype, we’re in for a “Roaring 2020s,” with all of the frivolity, excess and licentiousness of the 1920s, when a wave of euphoria washed over much of the world following the ends of both the influenza pandemic and World War I.
But what we’re about to face is likely to be quite different, says John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, the definitive history of the 1918 flu pandemic. Perhaps we’ll have the post-pandemic economic boom, but there will likely be less of the excess that defined the Roaring ’20s.
“It’ll probably be without the sense of disillusionment, without the wildness, without the fatalism, without the survivor’s guilt, without asking ‘Why am I alive?’” Barry says. “I don’t think anybody who goes on a cruise ship next year is going to be wondering, ‘Why am I alive? How come I made it?’ Psychologically, that was all part of the Roaring ’20s.”
Behind the flappers, bootleggers and Gatsby-esque decadence was a hard-won fatalism that came from the level of loss and devastation wrought by the war and the flu, which, unlike Covid, disproportionately killed younger Americans, contributing to a sense among some who survived that since they could die young, they might as well live hard.
Where the Covid pandemic has stretched on and on, with Americans mostly staying at home for the better part of a year, the flu swept through most cities in a matter of weeks but exacted a much heavier toll. Where Covid has killed roughly 2.7 million people worldwide, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed 50–100 million people at a time the global population was less than one-fourth its current size.
“The world had come apart. Everybody knew people who died — everybody. And in most cases, they knew a lot of people who died,” says Barry.
Barry also notes that the influenza pandemic disproportionately affected young adults, whereas older people have suffered most from Covid. One study by Metropolitan Life found that during the 1918 pandemic, 3.6 percent of all industrial workers ages 25–45 died within the period of a few weeks. “That’s not case mortality; that’s mortality,” Barry says, adding, “In 1918, the deaths among young children were astronomical.”
One similarity between then and now: Like the influenza virus, the novel coronavirus isn’t going to simply disappear. It doesn’t actually depend on human beings in order to survive; it’s ambivalent about whether mankind exists at all.
“This virus seems to pass between people and other mammals very, very easily. That was also true in 1918,” Barry says. In that sense, coronavirus is not unlike the 1918 flu virus, parts of which live on in the seasonal flus we experience every year. It’s a rather sobering reality, says Barry: “This virus is here to stay.”
What can we learn from life after the flu pandemic? What do we get wrong as we salivate about the prospect of another Roaring ’20s? And how do the flu pandemic’s lessons differ from the takeaways of the Covid era?
To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Barry this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Right now, with vaccines being distributed and the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly in the endgame stage in the U.S., a lot of people are pretty vocal about their hopes for the summer. There’s been speculation about a “roaring 2020s” 100 years after the actual Roaring ’20s. What does your research on the end of the great influenza pandemic tell you about what we’re likely to see in the years ahead?
John M. Barry: Well, it’s an area where I don’t think the 1918 pandemic is necessarily a great precedent. I think we will probably get into a Roaring ’20s type of situation, but it will have a very, very different mood.
Metropolitan Life found that [during the influenza pandemic], 3.6 percent of all industrial workers between the ages of 25 and 45 died in a period of weeks. That’s not case mortality; that’s mortality. It [disproportionately affected] a targeted demographic: young adults. It’s a different experience than what we’ve gone through.
In 1918, the first wave was extraordinarily mild. One statistic largely tells that story: The French army had 40,000 soldiers hospitalized [with the flu] and fewer than 100 deaths — and that’s without modern medicine. That’s the first wave. When the first wave ended, there were actually medical journal articles saying, “It’s gone. It has disappeared.”
The second wave was much more lethal and significantly more intense. It was the one that really counted. In the second wave, the military generally had 10 percent case mortality — and in many instances, much higher. One of the biggest differences between 1918 and today is duration. The second wave would move through a community in six to 10 weeks. It was different.
The other thing is, of course, the war — particularly in Europe. You had 20 million people killed in World War I, [including] almost 10 million soldiers. The United States only lost a little over 50,000 [troops]; the war, in terms of deaths, hardly touched us.
The economy was largely shut down — not so much by government decree, but because of absenteeism: Everything was a war industry. Engineers weren’t available to run railroad trains and things like that. Everything backed up. Wilson had turned it into “total war.” Every aspect of society was aimed at winning the war, from self-censorship in the press to laws that made it punishable by 20 years [in prison] to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government” in the United States. Most states banned the teaching of German; sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” — nonsense like that. Probably more effort went into trying to get Americans to conform their thinking than at any other time in history, including the McCarthy [Red Scare] period.
You also had the utter and total disillusionment worldwide with the peace treaty. Supposedly, we fought the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” et cetera. And all of the ideals that we claimed to go to war for were abandoned in the peace treaty. John Maynard Keynes called Woodrow Wilson the “greatest fraud on Earth.” Wilson’s top aides — about a dozen of them, several of whom later became secretaries of State — were so disgusted with what Wilson agreed to that they thought about resigning en masse. So, you’ve got the most brutal war in history, fought for the stupidest reasons, with the worst generalship that paid no attention to human life.
The end of the war came as a surprise. Nobody anticipated that it was going to end in the middle of November 1918. Everything was gearing up for a major offensive by the U.S. and its allies in the spring of 1919. The end was really abrupt and unexpected. So, when it did end, there was an extraordinary amount of euphoria — and that occurred, in many cases, almost simultaneously with the end of the pandemic.
The Roaring ’20s was in Europe as well as the United States. How do you separate the war from the pandemic? It’s not really possible. The pandemic was a factor, but I think the war was a bigger factor. That doesn’t mean that the pandemic had no impact.
I do expect a kind of “roaring 2020s” [this time around], but really because of the economic freeing of people. They’ve been penned up for more than a year, and they’re going to want to spend money and celebrate. But it’ll probably be without the sense of disillusionment, without the wildness, without the fatalism, without the survivor’s guilt, without asking “Why am I alive?” I don’t think anybody who goes on a cruise ship next year is going to be wondering, “Why am I alive? How come I made it?” Psychologically, that was all part of the Roaring ’20s.
You know, we consider the Roaring ’20s this time of frivolity and excess, but you’re saying that perhaps a more accurate way to think of it is not simply as this moment of elation, but as an almost manic response to living through the Great War and flu pandemic?
The world had come apart. Everybody knew people who died — everybody. And in most cases, they knew a lot of people who died.
What we’re facing today is, of course, quite different. It’s tragic. Most of the people who’ve died were elderly, and I’m certainly in the target demographic this time around myself. But there have been relatively few [fatalities] among otherwise healthy young adults, and practically none among children. In 1918, the deaths among young children were astronomical. I don’t think this statistic has ever been published, but somebody I know did the calculation that children under the age of 5 died at a rate equal today to all-cause mortality for a period of 23 years. That is a lot of kids, and remember, that’s compressed into a time frame of six to 10 weeks. There was a kind of tragedy and terror during the course of the flu pandemic in 1918 that’s just not there today.
In, say, 1925, if you were a European male in your late 20s or early 30s, I guarantee that you felt lucky to be alive since you weren’t killed in the war or pandemic. The United States, again, only lost around 53,000 soldiers, so you didn’t have that same sense of loss, but we did see plenty of tragedy from the pandemic.
The Roaring ’20s conjures images of flappers, speakeasies, of The Great Gatsby and the Harlem Renaissance. Undoubtedly, that romanticizes and oversimplifies it. After the flu pandemic, what was life really like for most Americans?
You had the economy came back in a very big way. There was a brief recession [in 1921] that was fairly intense. There was dislocation: The war industry stopped producing, there was an abrupt stop to businesses’ profits, and you suddenly had 4 million men in the primes of their working [lives] leaving the military and going back to jobs that might or might not exist. You had a lot of unemployed people.
There was a tremendous amount of racial problems. I think 26 cities had major race riots, including a very significant one in Chicago. Tulsa. Elaine, Arkansas, had a massacre. Black troops had been treated much better in France than they were in the United States. The Klan had many millions of members. They took over states from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. In 1924 at the Democratic National Convention, the issue of whether or not to condemn the Klan’s violence failed [in a vote by delegates]. There was plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment. [Congress] passed anti-immigration legislation unlike any we’ve seen before or since.
A lot of things that weren’t great went on in the 1920s, particularly in the first five years. It wasn’t just the “Roaring ’20s.”
As the pandemic drew down, were people concerned about the possibility of new variants of the flu?
No. The scientific community didn’t know what a “virus” was; the definition of “virus” came out of flu pandemic research, but not until 1925. In fact, you could argue, as I did in my book, that the discovery that DNA carried the genetic code actually came out of research on influenza, but not until 1944.
They knew there were very small organisms that passed through the smallest filters, but they didn’t know if they were bacteria or a different kind of organism. They understood that bacteria could mutate and change as they passed through people and reproduced. They recognized, in retrospect, that it was the same virus in the first wave and the second wave, but that it had changed. However, it then began to mutate in the direction of ordinary influenza viruses. There was a third wave in the spring of 1919, and it was pretty lethal, but nothing like the second wave. The virus hung around, and viruses circulating today are still descendants of the 1918 influenza virus — some elements of it, anyway.
In your book, The Great Influenza, you wrote about how the pandemic didn’t really end all at once, but gradually faded away into the early 1920s. Should we have similar expectations about coronavirus?
Yeah. Certainly, the consensus view is that this thing is here to stay. There are a couple of reasons for that. Number one: The vaccines are not 100 percent effective. Number two: There’s going to be a significant number of people who will never get vaccinated.
We may still reach “herd immunity,” but the virus will still circulate. That’ll be especially true once you get outside the developed world, where vaccines will be widely available. Once you get into parts of South America and Africa and India … I mean, India produces as much vaccine as any country in the world, but to vaccinate 80 percent of its population [of 1.38 billion people], that’s a pretty big task. There will be a reservoir of people who will never be vaccinated, and among whom the virus can circulate.
In addition, this virus seems to pass between people and other mammals very, very easily. That was also true in 1918. Essentially every mammal was known to be infected by the 1918 influenza virus. Tigers. Moose. Even seals — we don’t know if it infected whales, but it infected seals. It’s pretty clear that we gave the virus to pigs in 1918 in Iowa.[Similarly,] the coronavirus passes very easily from mammals to humans, and probably passes very easily back to mammals from humans.
And because of that, coronavirus is ambivalent about whether or not humans exist; it doesn’t need civilization for its own survival?
Right. It came from somewhere else. This virus is here to stay.
Several years ago, in a new epilogue for The Great Influenza, you wrote: “in a truly lethal pandemic, state and local authorities could take much more aggressive steps [at mitigation to stop the spread of a virus], such as closing theaters, bars and even banning sports events … and church services.” Have you been surprised by the degree to which taking exactly those measures during this pandemic has proven politically controversial?
Well, I’m disappointed. I don’t know if I’ve been surprised.
I’m disappointed this has been politicized; that didn’t happen in 1918. There were official government sources in 1918 who, in effect, said, “This is a hoax.” They said things like, “This is ordinary influenza by another name.” But nobody believed that, because they saw it. They saw somebody who lived across the street die 24 hours after their first symptoms — sometimes with horrific symptoms.
1918 was so much more lethal [than the Covid-19 pandemic], and it dealt with young people. This time around, very few people who are otherwise healthy and young have died. [The flu] moved fairly slowly around the country. And even though the virus continued to circulate and there was a third wave and so forth, the six- to 10-week period during which it took over a community was pretty distinct. When that period ended and that community reached herd immunity, the flu essentially disappeared. This time, it’s likely to be more gradual.
Right, we’re not likely to have a moment like you described taking place in San Francisco on Nov. 21, 1918, when every siren in the city goes off, signaling that people could stop wearing their masks.
By the time the CDC makes a judgment that masks are no longer necessary, my guess is that 45 states will have already [ended their mask mandates]. There may still be private establishments that require them.
One thing that has struck me is that I never imagined that so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” could be as effective as they have been when properly applied. I participated in early conceptualizing of the pandemic preparedness plan and was actually a skeptic. I thought they were worth doing, I supported them, but I was skeptical about how much impact they would have. I won’t say that this country has proved their effectiveness, but other countries have proved that they can be (literally) unbelievably effective in containing the virus — more than I ever imagined.
The big lesson you took away from the flu pandemic was about the importance of truth and need of the government and public officials to tell the truth — which they didn’t in 1918 as they downplayed the threat, and which the press at the time abetted them in doing. Were people at the time aware they were being misled?
Oh, they had to be. Sure. Again: “ordinary influenza by another name”? You had, in Philadelphia, almost 15,000 deaths in a few weeks. [Nationally,] it depressed life expectancy by 10 years. Of course they knew they were being lied to.
If the big lesson that you took away from the flu pandemic was about the importance of truth, what, at this point, do you see as the big lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic?
I think the same lesson has been reinforced. And that’s why we have 538,000 deaths.