Monday, March 23, 2015
March 23, 2015: American Epidemics: Influenza and Ebola
[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
Contextualizing and analyzing two of the worst epidemics in modern history.
A widespread international pandemic that crosses the ocean to the United States in the blink of an eye, threatening American lives and communities. Health and relief workers and soldiers infected, and many more quarantined, with nations desperately seeking to prevent the further spread of the deadly virus. Yet despite such measures, hundreds of millions around the world are infected and tens of millions die, including more than half a million American casualties. Right up until that last clause, it might have seemed that I was writing about the current Ebola crisis—but as deadly as that crisis has been for the African nations most affected, it has to date taken the lives of only two Americans; whereas the 1918 influenza pandemic (colloquially known as the Spanish Flu, due to that nation’s more straightforward reporting about the disease’s presence and effects) killed more than 500,000 Americans and nearly 100 million people across the globe before it finally was contained.
Contextualizing the influenza pandemic requires extended attention to two distinct but related globalizing trends. Most obviously, the crisis overlapped—not only in time, but in both cause and effect—with the final year of World War I (known then as The Great War); some historians have argued that it began in the war’s trenches or camps, but even if that wasn’t the case, it certainly spread and lingered in direct relation to the war (if, as many have noted, its casualty numbers far exceeded the war’s devastating effects). More subtly, the pandemic’s truly global spread—it reached even the world’s most remote locations, such as the Arctic—has to be linked to the ways in which advancements in technology and travel had made the early 20th century world far more interconnected than ever before; from the increasing ease of steamship travel to the rise of new technologies such as the automobile and airplanes, such developments allowed for international movement and connections in evolving, unprecedented ways. And as that linked Arctic story illustrates, another, linked international trend—the rise in imperialistic endeavors around the world—likewise facilitated the pandemic’s spread.
Both of these international contexts might seem equally relevant to analyzing our contemporary Ebola epidemic. Many of the African nations most affected by the disease have been and remain war-torn, and those conditions have no doubt contributed to the epidemic’s spread and effects. And the many American politicians and pundits who called for the suspension of all trips to and flights from those nations during the crisis’s early moments were quite explicitly arguing for international travel as both a contributing factor and a threat. But since, despite the absence of such drastic measures and the presence of various returning health workers, the epidemic has not spread to the United States (again, only two Americans have died from Ebola to date, and only a handful more have been affected), I would have to contexualize and analyze this current epidemic’s American story quite differently. To my mind, the American response to the Ebola epidemic has been driven by irrational or at least exaggerated fears—of globalization and its effects, of dangerous “others” (from terrorists to illegal immigrants), even of our fellow citizens. The Ebola epidemic remains quite real and horrific in West Africa, and requires continued attention—but here in the U.S., comparisons to the influenza pandemic reveal more about our current political and psychological state than our health.
Next epidemic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?