The New York Times – Opinion – Guest Essay – Jan. 31, 2022
Mr. Barry is a distinguished scholar at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
Most histories of the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed at least 50 million people worldwide say it ended in the summer of 1919 when a third wave of the respiratory contagion finally subsided.
Yet the virus continued to kill. A variant that emerged in 1920 was lethal enough that it should have counted as a fourth wave. In some cities — among them, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Kansas City, Mo. — deaths exceeded even those in the second wave, responsible for the vast majority of the pandemic’s deaths in the United States and elsewhere. This occurred despite the fact that the U.S. population had plenty of natural immunity from the influenza virus after two years of infections and after viral lethality in the third wave decreased.
Nearly all cities in the United States imposed restrictions during the pandemic’s virulent second wave, which peaked in the fall of 1918. That winter, some cities reimposed controls when a third, though less deadly, wave struck. But virtually no city responded in 1920. People were weary of influenza, and so were public officials. Newspapers were filled with frightening news about the virus, but no one cared. People at the time ignored this fourth wave; so did historians. Deaths returned to pre-pandemic levels in 1921, and the virus mutated into ordinary seasonal influenza, but the world had moved on well before.
We should not repeat that mistake.
True, right now we have every reason for optimism. First, Omicron cases are declining in parts of the country. Second, nearly the entire U.S. population will soon have been either infected or vaccinated, strengthening people’s immune systems against the virus as we know it now. Third, although Omicron is extraordinarily good at infecting the upper respiratory tract, which makes it so transmissible, it seems less able to infect the lungs than earlier variants, so it is less virulent. It is entirely possible and perhaps even likely that because of better immune responses, the virus will continue to decrease in lethality and, like the 1918 virus, might lose its ability to bind to cells in the lung.
All of which makes overconfidence, indifference or weariness, after two years of battling the virus — and one another — a danger now.