Wendell’s Wisdom


by Wendell Barnhouse

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “100-year flood.” It’s a flood event that has a 1 in 100 chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year. (Well, duh.) (And never mind that in the last few decades we’ve seen a few “100-year floods.”)

Your Veteran Scribe is currently reading “The Great Influenza – The Story of The Deadliest Pandemic in History” written by John M. Barry. Yes, dear reader, this is like watching “Titanic” before embarking on an April trans-Atlantic cruise.

In summary: The so-called Spanish Flu reached its peak in the U.S. in spring and fall of 1918. World War I had mobilized the nation to the point that a majority of doctors and nurses served the Army, draftees were so jam-packed in camps they spread and fell victim to a virus that killed horrifically. The world-wide pandemic killed an estimated 15 million to 50 million.

Just over a century ago, the U.S. was ravaged by the influenza and the ravaging was made worse because of several factors. President Woodrow Wilson’s single-mindedness about winning the war led to an anemic and federal response. Cities, in particular, were on their own. Philadelphia, rife with political corruption, suffered horrifically – the one-day death toll of 759 nearly doubled the weekly average of deaths by all causes. Corpses of dead family members remained in homes for days and weeks.

It is unimaginable understanding the terror that was felt in that city and around the nation. The U.S. military lost 116,000 in France but over half of those deaths came from disease (mostly, but not all, attributable to the Spanish Flu.) The epidemic’s second wave in autumn was more deadly, with 195,000 American citizens dying in October alone.

One chapter of the book foreshadows our current situation. “The federal government was giving no guidance that a reasonable person would credit … As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. They terrified by making little of (the disease), for what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and smelled and touched and endured. People could not trust what they read. Uncertainty follows distrust, fears follow uncertainty and, under conditions such as these, terror follows fear.”

What, you were expecting light-hearted reading?

Two military terms – SNAFU and FUBAR – aptly summarize the Trump “administration” and its handling of COVID-19. The coronavirus would have been a serious health problem with a perfect response. Now we’re in the “we ask why, and Trump lies” portion of our program. Instead of ranting about the Idiot-in-Chief, the point here is to illustrate a major difference between what this country experienced in 1918 and what it is experiencing now.

A century ago, newspapers provided the only flow of news and information. Other than perhaps powered flight, the advancements in information dissemination is one of the most remarkable achievements in the last 100 years.

We’re more informed but the argument could be made we’re not smarter. The age of idiocracy is fueled by the full-blast firehose of content that flows to our screens via the Internet. More is not better.

Because of the null set in the Oval Office, there is no singular outlet of information or hope. What should be a pyramid of directions and assistance flowing from the government to states and cities is an inverted pyramid.
Trump is ignorant and ill-informed, but he has made himself the spokesman for the government. State governors and in some cases, mayors, are charged with decisions and policy-making which means the response to this medical crisis is a hodgepodge patchwork quilt that Rube Goldberg (Google him, kids) would reject.

Social distancing and sheltering in place are the only methods available to “flatten the curve.” Those edicts in states and cities are more suggestions than urgings. People are still leaving their homes; some are staying six feet away from each other, some aren’t.

Social media means we don’t have to social distance but social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter contribute to the cacophony of information. Being more connected doesn’t mean we’re more informed.

The lack of trusted government leadership leads to mixed messages. Johnny Carson, the King of Late-Night (Google him, kids), early in his career hosted a game show called “Who Do You Trust?” Left to our own information quests, answering that question is difficult.

Those are two prime examples of the snake oil that is being peddled. Nature abhors a vacuum and cretins like Jim Bakker and Alex Jones are more than happy to promote false hope for a profit.

On the other side of the coin is Dr. Grayson. Her 30-minute video is worth the time. She has the credentials and her information is credible. Grayson’s facts are sobering but also hopeful because it is as close to the truth that’s available.

The instant information available is both helpful and hurtful. The recipient of the information must sift and filter what’s disseminated. Immediately being informed can mean that measuring progress vs. time can lose meaning. If a week of social distancing currently feels like a month, what if we’re still confined to quarters when the calendar flips to May?

Woodrow Wilson never acknowledged the Spanish Flu. We would be well-served to have an FDR, a JFK or a Churchill to urge courage, strength and a sense of community. Unfortunately, it appears we’re holding ourselves hostage, ala Sheriff Bart.

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