Philadelphia ‘reopened’ in 1918, and thousands died

Philadelphians dig a mass grave for victims of the Spanish flu. (Credit: Philly Voice)
Philadelphians dig a mass grave for victims of the Spanish flu. (Credit: Philly Voice)

President Trump wants to “reopen” America is just less than three weeks. Here’s what he told a Fox News town hall on Tuesday:

“I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said Tuesday during a Fox News town hall at the White House, later describing his April 12 target date as a “beautiful timeline.”

So what happens when you “reopen” for business as usual in the midst of a deadly pandemic? Residents of Philadelphia found out the hard way in the summer of 1918 when the politically appointed city director of public health overruled medical experts and gave the green light to a massive “Liberty Loans” parade intended to help boost morale and raise funds for the American war effort on the Western Front. An article at The Smithsonian sets the scene:

When the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive parade stepped off on September 28, some 200,000 people jammed Broad Street, cheering wildly as the line of marchers stretched for two miles. Floats showcased the latest addition to America’s arsenal – floating biplanes built in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. Brassy tunes filled the air along a route where spectators were crushed together like sardines in a can. Each time the music stopped, bond salesmen singled out war widows in the crowd, a move designed to evoke sympathy and ensure that Philadelphia met its Liberty Loan quota.

Then it describes what happened next:

Lurking among the multitudes was an invisible peril known as influenza—and it loves crowds. Philadelphians were exposed en masse to a lethal contagion widely called “Spanish Flu,” a misnomer created earlier in 1918 when the first published reports of a mysterious epidemic emerged from a wire service in Madrid.

For Philadelphia, the fallout was swift and deadly. …

Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. 

The death toll would eventually top 12,000 Philadelphians. The city would need help to literally clear bodies from the streets. Wilmer Krusen, the city’s appointed director of public health, had, despite knowledge to the contrary, denied that influenza was a serious threat to the city. But as The Smithsonian’s article points out, Krusen’s decision to let the parade go ahead was driven by fear. Just not fear of the virus.

Krusen’s decision to let the parade go on was based on two fears. He believed that a quarantine might cause a general panic. In fact, when city officials did close down public gatherings, the skeptical Philadelphia Inquirer chided the decision“Talk of cheerful things instead of disease,” urged the Inquirer on October 5. “The authorities seem to be going daft. What are they trying to do, scare everybody to death?”

And, like many local officials, Krusen was under extreme pressure to meet bond quotas, which were considered a gauge of patriotism. Caught between the demands of federal officials and the public welfare, he picked wrong.

A century later, President Trump, and a growing chorus of his toadies, want to repeat the disaster of Philadelphia in 1918, but on a potentially nationwide scale. That could result in as many as 126 million infections and more than 1.3 million deaths.

Our best hope under those circumstances is for clear-headed governors and mayors to hold the line and defy any call from the White House to reopen the country.

A welcome shot of science

(Credit: CDC)

I have a doctorate, but I’m not a “doctor” in the way most of us think of the term. Nor am I a virologist or some other kind of medical researcher. For those reasons, I’m especially grateful when I come across articles that explain some of the science of what we’re all currently dealing with.

An article appearing at The Atlantic’s website today, by science writer Ed Yong, helps explain one of the most vexing questions about this novel coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2: Why, compared even to other coronaviruses, is it spreading so quickly?

The structure of the virus provides some clues about its success. In shape, it’s essentially a spiky ball. Those spikes recognize and stick to a protein called ACE2, which is found on the surface of our cells: This is the first step to an infection. The exact contours of SARS-CoV-2’s spikes allow it to stick far more strongly to ACE2 than SARS-classic did, and “it’s likely that this is really crucial for person-to-person transmission,” says Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University. In general terms, the tighter the bond, the less virus required to start an infection.

There’s another important feature. Coronavirus spikes consist of two connected halves, and the spike activates when those halves are separated; only then can the virus enter a host cell. In SARS-classic, this separation happens with some difficulty. But in SARS-CoV-2, the bridge that connects the two halves can be easily cut by an enzyme called furin, which is made by human cells and—crucially—is found across many tissues. “This is probably important for some of the really unusual things we see in this virus,” says Kristian Andersen of Scripps Research Translational Institute.

For example, most respiratory viruses tend to infect either the upper or lower airways. In general, an upper-respiratory infection spreads more easily, but tends to be milder, while a lower-respiratory infection is harder to transmit, but is more severe. SARS-CoV-2 seems to infect both upper and lower airways, perhaps because it can exploit the ubiquitous furin. This double whammy could also conceivably explain why the virus can spread between people before symptoms show up—a trait that has made it so difficult to control. Perhaps it transmits while still confined to the upper airways, before making its way deeper and causing severe symptoms. All of this is plausible but totally hypothetical; the virus was only discovered in January, and most of its biology is still a mystery.

I encourage you to read the whole thing. It is outstanding. Here’s the link to the article again.

And bonus science here: You can track the number of cases in your state in close to real time. With confidence ratings based on the transparency of your state’s response to the crisis.

This week in terrorism history: March 16-22

The late Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, perhaps my favorite movie terrorist of all time.

I debated whether or not to continue with this series of posts given all of the other things that are going on right now. The universities and public schools are sending students home, businesses are forced to shut down, the economy is teetering, people are panic-buying toilet paper of all things, and new cases of coronavirus are appearing at alarming rates pretty much everywhere.

I wouldn’t call these entries, running lists of past terrorist events, much of a diversion. But for me, writing this, and maybe for you reading it, this is a better use of my time than obsessively reading all of the bad news.

So I want to keep things this week on a relatively lighter note, and that means terrorism at the movies! For my money, the single most entertaining terrorist in recent film history has to be Hans Gruber, of Die Hard fame, the smoothly elegant leader of the “Volksfrei” movement, a left-wing West German terrorist group, played by the late, great Alan Rickman.

Of course, if you’ve seen the movie (who hasn’t?) you know it’s all a scam. Volksfrei isn’t a real group, the gang Gruber leads isn’t politically motivated at all (such a motivation central to any good definition of terrorism), and their demand for the release of “revolutionary brothers and sisters” imprisoned around the world in exchange for hostages is just cover for the real plan, the heist of some $640 million in “negotiable bearer bonds” from the safe of Nakatomi Plaza.

If you’d like to read more about my favorite movie terrorist and his plan to retire, “sitting on a beach earning 20 percent,” take a look at this appreciation from the online platform Medium. For a more academic take on Hollywood’s changing take on terrorism from the 1970s to the 2010s, give this piece, from the journal Perspectives on Terrorism, a read. Here’s a quick sample from the article:

When reviewing Hollywood’s output on terrorism, it is obvious that it correlates with the waves and historical development of political violence: previously sporadic encounters with terrorism in Hollywood cinema, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), became more frequent in the 1970s, at a time when international terrorism and especially hijackings of jetliners orchestrated by Palestinian groups made headlines and featured in newsreels. Thus, the Arab gunman, who threatens innocent passengers and strikes at Western installations, became a typical Hollywood villain …

And now on to this week’s look back.

  • March 16, 1985 — Beirut, Lebanon: Journalist Terry Anderson is kidnapped off the street in Beirut and held hostage by Hezbollah. He was released more than six years later, in December 1991.
  • March 17, 1978 — Maghera, Northern Ireland: David Jones, a British soldier working undercover, is killed during a gun battle with the Irish Republican Army. 
  • March 17, 1992 — Buenos Aires, Argentina: A car bomb destroys the Israeli embassy, killing 28 and wounding more than 200. Hezbollah claims responsibility.
  • March 20, 1995 — Tokyo: Aum Shinrikyo releases sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and sickening more than 5,000.
  • March 22, 2017 — New York City: James Harris Jackson, 28, is arrested after he turns himself in at a Manhattan police precinct where he confesses stabbing Timothy Caughman, 66, to death with a “Roman short sword” on a city street on March 20 after traveling to New York City to allegedly hunt and kill black men. He tells police the attack was a “trial run” for a series of killings he intended to carry off in order to deter white women from dating black men.

#ADWD — An update

No, Joe Biden was not the Democratic moderate I was looking for either. Yet, here we are. And I’m OK with it.

Candidates that I liked dropped out of the contest either early (Booker and Harris) or more recently (Klobuchar and Buttegieg). Another that I really couldn’t stomach (Bloomberg) dropped out today, proving that you really can’t buy your way to the nomination no matter how much of your own money you spend. Even if that’s a quarter of a billion dollars.

But Super Tuesday has made the outlines of the rest of the race for the Democratic nomination pretty clear. Despite how fiercely Elizabeth Warren will persist, the choice has been narrowed to Biden or Bernie.

My state, Michigan, will vote next Tuesday. Four years ago I crossed party lines to vote in the Republican primary, and urged other Democrats to do so as well in, as it turned out, a vain attempt to slow Donald Trump’s cancerous takeover of the Republican Party.

Once again, I am going to cast my vote with one thought in mind: What is the best way to stop Donald Trump? From what I can tell, that’s Joe Biden, so that’s where my vote will go.

But, if it turns out that Bernie takes it after all, my strategy in November is unchanged. #ADWD.