08. Jul 2020 - Holly Case

In late October of 2019, there was a conference at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna titled “1919: The Politics of Peacemaking.” At the time only one presenter made mention of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 (and that only fleetingly), which had killed more people worldwide than the Great War. By late April of this year (2020), various US news sources were marking another grim milestone: the Coronavirus death toll in the US - which then stood at around 61,000 - had already surpassed the total number (ca. 60,000) of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

Such historical comparisons are clearly meant to bring the scale and significance of the pandemic 'home' to readers, for whom many of the numbers are abstractions. Readers have been reminded that the Vietnam War stretched over twenty long years and was “the nation’s most divisive conflict since the Civil War.” Though some commentary seeks political neutrality, there is also not infrequently a politics to the comparison: “Will a president who staked his legacy on a ‘big, beautiful wall’ along the Mexican border actually be remembered for a very different wall: one that bears the names of scores of thousands of Americans who died on his watch?” wondered one author. In another case, the title of the article makes the politics clear: “Fifty Thousand Americans Dead from the Coronavirus, and a President Who Refuses to Mourn Them.”

Time Magazine created a graphic comparing the Covid-19 death toll in the country not only to the US casualties incurred in Vietnam, but also to a variety of other conflicts and pandemics of the past, including the American Revolutionary War, the US Civil War, the First World War, the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, the Second World War, the Korean War, the 1957-1958 flu pandemic, the 1968 flu pandemic, and 11 September 2001, the ‘War on Terror,’ and the H1N1 flu pandemic. What emerged most starkly from this graphic is how the 1918-1919 flu pandemic produced far and away the highest death toll, with approximately 675,000 deaths in the United States. The article’s author(s) emphasized that “today’s coronavirus deaths are part of a long history of illness being as deadly as war, or more so.”

Perhaps this is why historical comparisons with the 1918-1919 flu pandemic have been so common. Many such comparisons emphasize the differences, particularly in the handling of the pandemic. One New York Times article noted that “[t]he fear is similar, but the medical reality is not,” referencing “the fearful atmosphere - surgical masks, stockpiling of food and avoidance of public gatherings - and potential economic ramifications.” Commentary has focused mainly on 1918 as a “cautionary tale” and the “lessons” to be gleaned from the Spanish flu pandemic, ranging from the necessity of containment, second waves, the dangers of prioritizing politics over public health, easing restrictions too soon, etc.

One especially fraught comparison has been with the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Some survivors of that epidemic have been deeply critical of comparisons to Covid-19. Mark S. King, who tested HIV positive in 1985, said: “People ask me if our lives today feel like the early years of HIV/AIDS, and I want to scream. There is no comparison. Just stop.” The differences, King continued, were manifold: “No one cared about people dying of AIDS in the early years of the pandemic. The stock market didn’t budge. The President didn’t hold news conferences. Billions of dollars were not spent.” Some of those comparisons came from right-wing media, including Laura Ingraham on Fox News, who argued that the successes in treating HIV/AIDS indicated that “going back to normal” would be possible after the coronavirus. (Ingraham has been among those on the right downplaying the significance of the current pandemic.)

Meanwhile, White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci, whose early career was shaped by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, drew the comparison to highlight disparities in the way various demographic groups were being affected by the coronavirus. The pandemic, he said “shine(s) a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society,” just as HIV/AIDS revealed the “extraordinary stigma particularly against the gay community” at the time. In the case of the coronavirus, he highlighted the disparities in the way African-American communities were being affected due to higher poverty rates, worse overall access to quality healthcare, and thus higher incidence of pre-existing conditions. Others have seen similarities in the “rumor, misinformation, and parascientific folklore surrounding both,” or “the omnipresent realities of fear, uncertainty and death."

About the author

Holly Case is associate professor of history at Brown University (USA) and currently a fellow at the Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena, Germany.

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