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The Last Pandemic was Deadly Because of Press Censorship

The Chinese doctor who first identified the coronavirus was arrested for speaking out, eventually dying of the disease. And just in case you're still not a huge champion of a free press in America, here's an incredible example of what happened when the U.S. dabbled in its own version of 'just print good news': it contributed to the death of 50 million people in what was called The Spanish Flu.

 

Though the Spanish Flu started in Haskell, Kansas on an Army base, it was named after Spain because Spanish journalists "had more freedom and more courage to report the truth, and they were neutral during World War I." They were the first to report on the rapidly rising death rate, according to Jennifer Wright, in her breezy but graphic book on global pandemics, Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. "A morale law had been passed in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It stated you could receive 20 years in jail if you chose to 'utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.' This law seems unconstitutional, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court ruling (Schenck v United States) that you can't say things that 'represent to society a clear and present danger.' Newspapers in the United States were supposed to present the truth, but they were also supposed to report cheerful facts that made America look good"[i]

 

As a result, when a virulent flu that was extremely contagious broke out in Haskell, Kansas at an Army base, the press wasn't free to say anything about it. Couldn't mention that citizens shouldn't congregate at fairs and conventions, or even churches. And they certainly couldn't say that the government and medical establishment had no idea how to combat the fast-acting influenza.  The flu spread when the soldiers shipped out to Europe.

 

Unfortunately, the press in Britain was even more severely censored during World War I: journalistic outlaws were threatened with execution!

 

"The Defense of the Realm Act declared 'no person shall by word-of-mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty's forces or among the civilian population'... so no one reported that congregating would spread the disease more rapidly. 

 

The outcome: 50 million people worldwide died of the "Spanish" or perhaps more accurately, The Kansas Flu.[ii]

 

No Angelic Disease

Also of note in the book: she debunks the idea that pneumonia was an 'angelic' disease, where women grew beautifully pale and slipped away without pain, as it was dramatized in Victorian literature. She describes in detail what a devastating disease it was, how painful and filled with suffering. Take that, literary trope!

And, being a nerd about the Middle Ages, I was happy to see Nostradamus' rose pill recipe to combat the plague (mentioned in my novel The Mandrake Broom): "Take some sawdust or shavings of cypress-wood, as green as you can find, 1 ounce; Iris of Florence, 6 ounces; close, 3 ounces; sweet [cane palm] calamus, 3 drams; aloe-wood, 6 drams. Grind everything to powder and take care to keep it all airtight. Next, take some furled red roses, 300 or 400, clean, fresh, and culled before dewfall. Crush them to powder in a marble mortar, using a wooden pestle. Then add some half-unfurled roses to the above powder and pound. And shape into pills.[iii]

 



[i] Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, Jennifer Wright, Henry Holt and Company, 2017, pg. 182 https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/get-well-soon-jennifer-wright/1124361562?ean=9781627797467
[ii] Get Well Soon, op. cit., pg. 179
[iii] Ian Wilson, Nostradamus: The Man behind the Prophecies (New York: St. Martin's press, 2002), page 45, quoted in the Jennifer Wright volume on page 45

 

Also https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mandrake-broom-jess-wells/1102506117?ean=2940153726106

 

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