The Great Influenza

by John M. Barry

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

Author John M. Barry explains that when he first began to write The Great Influenza in 1997, he wanted to explore “how American society reacted to an immense challenge,” especially how those in positions of power and influence reacted and how their decisions affected society. On the whole, Barry was interested in drawing potential lessons from the event that might prove useful. Writing in 2018, Barry believes that “the continued threat of a new, possibly lethal pandemic has made those questions more relevant than ever.”

Looking at the 1918 pandemic—as well as lessons learned from the 2009 swine flu pandemic—Barry speculates about the reality of a future pandemic. All five historical pandemics have come in waves, and each wave has been slightly different. The changing nature of influenza makes it very difficult to create useful vaccines. Although there is a search for a universal vaccine, it has not yet been discovered.

Today, the World Health Organization’s surveillance system, and global investments into vaccine manufacturing technologies are positive developments. There is also a greater understanding of different public health measures that can be utilized to stem a pandemic. However, each of these has significant flaws.

The “biggest problem,” according to Barry, “lies in the relationship between governments and the truth.” Politicians’ ability to grasp the truth of an epidemiological situation—and to convey that truth to citizens—is critical. By telling the truth, political leaders diminish the terror that breaks down society. If society is completely fractured by a loss of trust, it “cannot function.” If leaders are specific and concrete about the challenge posed by a disease, society is in a far better position to face that challenge.

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