It was called “the Spanish flu,” a label entirely bogus. It could, much more accurately, have been called “the Kansas flu,” because that Midwestern state was where many of the earliest cases of that Coronavirus pandemic were diagnosed in March 1918. This was in the middle of World War I and a disproportionate number of early victims were young adults, many of them soldiers in the armies of the United Kingdom, France and the United States. These were facts that wartime censors would not allow to become known, and so when the disease spread to Spain, a neutral country in The Great War, and threatened the life of King Alfonso XIII, the outbreak was pinned on Spain — hence and forever more — “Spanish flu.”
And what a pandemic it was! Between 1918 and 1920 the H1N1 virus, the same one that caused the “swine flu” epidemic of 2007, sickened half a billion people, roughly one-third of the world’s population. By various estimates, at least 17 million people died — some researchers say it could have been as many as 100 million. In the United States, the death toll has been estimated at just under one million.
One of those dead was 49 year-old Friedrich Trump, an immigrant businessman and the grandfather of President Donald Trump, who in all his public statements about the Coronavirus pandemic that broke out in 2020, did what most Americans did about the dead and the influenza pandemic that killed them — he forgot about it; never mentioned it once.
In a perfectly perverse way, this remarkable lapse of memory made Donald Trump an all-too-typical American. “We have,” the eminent medical anthropologist Martha Louise Lincoln told our guest today, journalist and author Nina Burleigh, “a collective cognitive resistance to seeing ourselves … lose.”
Forgetting history, it has often and famously been noted, means repeating it. Donald Trump forgot the history of how his grandfather lost his life and never learned how America could avoid repeating the human tragedy that began 102 years before the outbreak from which we are just beginning to recover.
The president’s memory lapse was just one of the consequential failures that made the American share of the pandemic so much worse than it could and should have been.
Nina Burleigh is a best-selling author, journalist and lecturer. Her latest book, VIRUS: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, is a brisk, real-life thriller that delves into the malfeasance behind the American pandemic chaos, and the triumph of science in an era of conspiracy theories and contempt for experts.