Indiana’s history with the flu


A few years after my 1983 move to Fort Wayne, I was sitting in a restaurant on the south side of town when the dishes on all the tables rattled, as if the floor had suddenly shifted beneath us.

The next day, I read that a 5-point-something earthquake had hit the seismic zone between Indiana and Illinois in the Wabash River Valley.

It was called a “moderate” earthquake, and we were far from the epicenter, but still … it was a little bit scary.

I feel a bit like that today as panic about a worldwide pandemic trickles slowly into Indiana from the Chinese epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

A Hoosier couple was on that endless cruise of the ship that virus-fearing country after country turned away.

An Indiana resident is being “monitored” after a trip to China. Two Hmong men say they were discriminated against at two motels in Plymouth because they “looked Chinese.” A northwest Indiana couple self-quarantined after traveling to China.

It is tempting to dismiss the coverage as overzealousness by a press that doesn’t want the state to miss out on the vicarious hysteria being enjoyed by the rest of the country.

These are the same people, after all, who urge panic over a few vaping deaths when cigarettes kill tens of thousands, who scare us over airline crashes when deadly automobile collisions are far more likely, who make us think “We’re all going to die!” because of alar on apples.

Just, you know, look at the flu.

While we’re stressing out over a relatively few coronavirus deaths outside of mainland China, the flu kills more than half a million people a year, about 60,000 of them in the U.S. alone.

But that is a faulty comparison.

The flu has been here for a long time, so we know a lot about how it operates. Millions get it every year, but the mortality rate is less than 1%. The coronavirus is so new that we’re still learning what makes it tick, including what its rate of death is. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 2% to 20%. And it seems to be communicable before symptoms are apparent.

It’s a statistically safe bet the feared epidemic won’t materialize. Most don’t actually come about.

But some do.

Just look at, well, you know, the flu.

The 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, near the end of World War I, was as deadly as the war itself. I’ve seen estimates of 20 to 40 million dead, and Smithsonian magazine puts the total even higher, between 50 and 100 million. Affecting mostly otherwise healthy young adults, rather than most strains that kill mostly children and the elderly, it was thought to have spread so quickly because of crowding in military camps.

About 675,000 Americans died, but fewer than 4,000 of them were in Indiana, and the rate of flu deaths in Indianapolis was just 290 per 100,000 population, one of the lowest in the nation. Historians say two reasons were health officials’ thoroughness in confronting the disease, and the media’s willingness to publicize the efforts.

The virus was called the “Spanish” flu because the countries fighting World War I, including the U.S. and most in Europe, did not want to sow fear or admit a weakness to the enemy, so the disease spread in relative secrecy. Spain, being neutral, did not suppress its flu news, so got the reputation of being hardest hit.

But here in Indiana, the word went out.

The State Board of Health ordered local officials to close all schools, churches and theaters. All meetings except for small committees were forbidden. Stores were forbidden to have sales.

Imagine such an order going out today.

Somewhere between paralyzing panic and self-defeating indifference, there is a common sense approach that says, let’s wait and see and consider the evidence as it comes in. So, until we know more, let’s allow public health officials to do their thing and even give the media a pass, however grudgingly.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review and is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Contact him at [email protected].

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected].


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