When it comes to COVID-19, social media is a fire hose of facts, fears and fabrications. It’ll jazz you up and calm you down. It’ll make you scowl at toilet paper hoarders one minute, then bolt off to the store the next.
It was different in the age when people got their news from, well, newspapers. If you examine the archives to see how papers reported on the pandemics of yore — 1918, 1957, 1968, 2009 — you see how the culture is reflected in the tone. And you can’t help concluding that either they were made of sterner stuff than us, or they really didn’t know what they were up against. Or both.
Spanish flu, 1918. The last grueling death rattle of World War I dominated the papers, not the flu. Which is not to say papers ignored it. They ran poems about it. Humorous poems, at that, mocking hypochondriacs and panic-mongers. And when they did take it seriously, it could backfire. The Winnipeg Tribune ran a front-page story about shop owners blaming the paper for hyping the flu and ruining business.
The occasional alarming anecdote would turn up. An item in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune on Oct. 30, 1918, has a raw, despairing quality absent in nearly every other story on the epidemic.
“A letter from a small town in the east says: ‘People are dying by the hundreds here. They cannot dig graves fast enough, and there is a shortage of caskets. I don’t know what we will do if this keeps up; it seems they will have to bury the dead without coffins.’ That’s how terrible the Spanish Influence is in some locations.”
That was not a news story, though. That was an ad for an anti-flu nostrum that was literally called Snake Oil — in case you wondered how bogus meds got that name.
The papers noted the number of reported flu cases, the local deaths, the closings — but the stories were small. Wartime censorship kept a lid on bad news that might dent home-front morale. Plus, the appetite for death tolls and harrowing predictions was not abundant in a population exhausted by war news.
Asian flu, 1957. On July 4, 1957, a headline in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune said, “Minnesota Keeps an Eye Out for Asian flu.”
“Minnesota health officials are on the alert for Asian flu. They are awaiting the result of a laboratory check on some 100 suspected cases that broke out in the past week at a Grinnell, Iowa, youth meeting. If the Iowa cases turn out to be Asian flu, it will be the disease’s first United States appearance outside apparent cases on both east and west coasts.”
That would seem to be important, no? Apparently not that important; the story ran on page 23.
According to the Des Moines Tribune on Aug. 16, it was Asian flu, and there were 200 suspected cases. But the story was headlined “Asian Flu Fails to Hit Iowa Hard,” and it ran on page 15, with the movie reviews and traffic accident reports.
The Morning Tribune ran a few stories about the Asian flu in July 1957. They included a news brief about an outbreak that sickened hundreds in Syria and an editorial calling for calm and praising the efforts of the World Health Organization and the U.S. public health services.
That was the official mood of the times: Our top people are on it. We have tools now. But there might have been something else at work, too, when you consider that people had endured the polio epidemic. Nature always had something nasty up its sleeve. Grit your teeth, wait and pray.
By August, the story was front-page material, but the stories discussed the new vaccine and its imminent arrival. The flu was always in the paper, but it was reported with as much emotion as the livestock prices. By the time the virus had run its course, the death toll in the United States was about 116,000. (Keep in mind that the population was only about half of what it is now, 172 million compared with an estimated 331 million.)
Hong Kong flu, 1968: The Asian flu permuted into a new variety, H3N2, also known as the Hong Kong flu. Stories about it started popping up in November and December, and again, the media had a business-as-usual tone. There were larger tales to tell — the journey to the moon, the trouble in Vietnam.
Said an Associated Press report on Dec. 27, 1968:
“Deaths attributed to the Hong Kong flu more than doubled across the nation in the third week of December. ... Official figures for the week showed roughly 500 more ‘pneumonia-influenced’ deaths recorded in 122 cities.”
The story ran on page 24. Hong Kong flu eventually would kill 100,000 people in the United States.
Swine flu, 2009: On April 25, the Star Tribune ran a front-page story of a flu epidemic in Mexico that had hit Texas and California. Two days later, on the top of the front page, was a report of more new cases, all over the planet. “It’s not a time to panic,” said the headline, quoting the White House.
This was H1N1, and the initial impact seemed mild. In the second week of June, the state was reporting 30 new cases a day, but there was a general shrug about it. At the time, according to a Star Tribune graphic, there were about 14,000 cases in the United States. And then it died out.
But it came back in the fall. There was a vaccine, but there wasn’t enough. “Vaccine rollout fuels anxiety,” read a headline, displaying a different tone than the headlines of earlier years. Anxiety about the authorities’ ability to cope was not the part you said out loud back then. President Barack Obama’s Oct. 25 announcement of a “national flu emergency” made the front page, but it wasn’t the top story.
The third paragraph noted that over 1,000 people had died from the flu.
There was a vaccine soon enough, but the rollout was plagued with glitches and ineffective batches. Nonetheless, the story did not dominate every page of the news or roil the markets. A few activities shut down — a summer camp here, a meeting there. A graduation ceremony had to make do with fist-bumps instead of handshakes. The news didn’t seem apocalyptic.
So why is COVID-19 getting such different treatment from the media?
Perhaps this is a unique intersection of a more virulent strain appearing at a point when social media and global interconnectivity amplifies everything. It’s hard to bear the bad news, and it makes you wish someone would write a humorous poem.