A Historical Novelist's Perspective on Our New Swine Flu

The current swine flu crisis reminded me of Mary Doria Russell's wonderful historical novel "Dreamers of the Day." The opening section of that story covers the Great Influenza of 1919 in the most powerful way. She was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail:

How does your research on that horrific event make you think about the current alarm over swine flu?

I keep coming back to "History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second
as farce."

Does the nation's media (24-hour cable, Internet, etc) change our response to this flu, in contrast to 1919?

See "farce," above.

Not to pick on CNN -- because all the cable networks are absurdist theater -- but you could practically see the little dribble of saliva leaking from the corner of Wolf Blitzer's mouth when this story got started.

Everybody's bored with banks and car companies -- but wait! Look over there! Flu! A Supreme Court nomination! A calf born with two heads! Something SHINY!

Aside from the obvious medical progress over the past 90 years, does America seem better prepared politically & civicly to handle a pandemic?

Unquestionably, and I'd like to compliment the people who are actually responding to this illness as part of their jobs. Public health officials and medical personnel have gone about their business like the professionals they are: calmly and sensibly.

The 24-hour news industry, by contrast, thrives on artificial anxiety. All of us should put a sign over our TVs and computer monitors reminding us that "The primary purpose of this screen is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers." What could be better than an epidemic to keep people huddled up at home, watching TV and being exposed to ads?

I wonder if the people of 1919 were more familiar with death than we are today -- the War, the common ravages of illness, etc. Do you think our own more fortunate position -- our vastly superior abilities to cure the sick and forestall death -- makes us feel more secure or more ready to panic at the news of this epidemic?

Personally, I don't know anybody who's even vaguely concerned about this flu. VP Biden may be worked up, but nobody in Cleveland seems worried.

First of all, it's a mild flu. Second, you're more likely to be hit by lightning than to get it. Closing schools and wiping them down with bleach is a huge overreaction. I suspect that 98% of all such decisions are driven by the fear of a lawsuit if a kid gets sick and dies of anything remotely connected to the flu.

In a world where lawyers decide what's safe, everything is dangerous.

Nonetheless, I am impressed by the worldwide response of public health officials to this dress rehearsal. It's been a useful exercise, even if this not a big bad flu.

Frankly, I was shocked by the severity of the 1919 epidemic and the social and economic costs you portrayed in your novel. Were you?

Well, I am kind of a disease geek... My doctorate is in biological anthropology -- we study a lot of illnesses that have affected HLA antibody systems, and created population bottlenecks, and so on. So I was aware that the 1919 flu was an appalling illness. It's only redeeming characteristic was that it killed quickly.

We tend to use the term flu to mean any short, sharp illness involving fever and muscle aches, but technically influenza is a respiratory virus (no vomiting or diarrhea). The 1919 flu killed primarily by setting up perfect conditions for the bacteria that cause pneumonia. The lungs filled up rapidly with reactive gunk, and people drowned lying in bed, often in a matter of hours. IF the current flu mutates and becomes that virulent, the impact would certainly be felt, but we have antibiotics to combat secondary pneumonia and that would keep the mortality figures down.

My concern is that our current population is weakened by morbidity due to obesity. Malnutrition is as common now as it was at the beginning of the last century, but in those days the issue was hunger, whereas now it's overfeeding on poor quality food. In both cases, the majority of the population is fundamentally unhealthy and less able to withstand the rigors of a serious illness.

Do you think the country suffers from an odd degree of historical amnesia about that crisis?

Well, of course, in America, we use the phrase "It's history" when we're dismissing something as unimportant. Part of my job as a historical novelist is to get readers to feel an intense connection with the past, but I'm swimming upstream, culturally.

That said, it's only been in recent decades in our culture that speaking of grief and trauma and emotional distress has been tolerated, much less encouraged.

An example from my own family: My uncle Fred was four when his mother was taken away on a stretcher. Several days later, he was brought to "a park" where an aunt pointed to a long wooden box and said, "Say goodbye to your mama." And then they put the box in the ground and covered it up with dirt.

Nobody ever said anything more about it, and that child was left to believe that his mother had been buried alive and that no one was allowed to talk about her anymore. It wasn't until he was a grandfather that he was struck by how awful that experience was, and what a malignant effect it had on him.

We now recognize the corrosive damage of buried emotional trauma, and try to prevent it or deal with it if it's already occurred. We may make way too much of a big deal over a lot of trivial stuff, but we are much better than our antecedents at mitigating the harm done by life's inevitable losses. That's progress.

By Ron Charles |  May 6, 2009; 5:46 AM ET Ron Charles
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Uh, I think you mean persepctive. Honestly, people, you are the newspaper. Even worse, you are the section on literature! Please.

Posted by: ls123 | May 6, 2009 9:26 AM

And, of course, it's perspective.

Posted by: ls123 | May 6, 2009 9:26 AM

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