I recently read a book about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” (it likely started in Kansas, not Spain) called The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John N. Barry. It’s not an easy read, with many different narrative threads. But it’s also one of those books everyone should read, because there is much to learn from the great pioneers of science and medicine from a hundred years ago.
And much to learn from the mistakes of the past.
There are two interrelated and overarching lessons of The Great Influenza: leaders must tell the truth, no matter how hard; and the virus will have its way, no matter what.
In 1918, truth was the first casualty. President Woodrow Wilson had mobilized every facet of the country’s life to fight the war in Europe. Telling the truth might, he reasoned, hurt morale and damage the war effort. Wilson never said a single public word about the pandemic.
In 1918 medical science and virology were in their infancy. The way viruses behave is so much more complex than most people realize. Not just the way the virus spreads, but the way they interact with human beings, changing, mutating as they spread. Sometimes getting stronger, sometimes weaker.
The way we communicate today, with sound bites and tweets, makes it hard to get the truth out. And with our limited attention spans, are we even willing to listen?
By the time the Spanish Flu had played out, after the world had seen three waves of it, only a few of the remotest places on earth were spared. Remote Eskimo villages had been wiped out. Even in the cities that did everything right, in the long run casualties were just high as everywhere else.
Psalm 77 has some powerful imagery of God bringing order out of chaos. In verse 17, the psalmist says, “The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed.” And then in verse 19, “Your path led through the sea…though your footprints were not seen.”
God is bringing order out of the chaos. Nature can see it, even the water can see it. Shouldn’t we?
Through this pandemic, God has given us an enormous opportunity to seek God and to teach our hearts that we are not in charge, of nature, of our lives, or really much of anything.
But God is.
This takes practice, work. Like the psalmist, we have to keep reminding ourselves that God is the one who brings order out of chaos.
Here’s another truth.
We’re not in charge, but God is.