Good fake news?

  There’s been a lot of repetition, aimed at the virtuous goal of promoting social distancing in today’s COVID-19 pandemic, of the facts that Philadelphia did not cancel a parade in late September of 1918 and had, ostensibly as a result, a very high mortality rate from Spanish flu, and that St. Louis did cancel one, and had a much lower rate.  There is probably some causation here—it did some good, I’m sure—but less than a casual glance would suggest.

First, Philadelphia was a city in a coastal state.  Looking at the various charts available, both contemporary (such as the one below) and modern, a reader can immediately see that cities in coastal states were much harder-hit than Midwestern cities.  Ports of arrival and nearby places received the illness first.  In an era before most airplane or automobile travel, it took more time to travel inland.  St. Louis’s mortality rate was low, it’s true, but that was true about most other midwestern cities as well.  According to a chart on p. 109 of American Pandemic:  The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, by Nancy Bristow, over about six months (September 8th, 1918 to March 1, 1919) Toledo, Ohio had an influenza mortality rate of 0.22%, St. Paul, Minnesota had one of 0.35%, and Louisville, Kentucky one of just over 0.06%.  St. Louis’s rate of 0.28% maps very well with distance from seaports.

It doesn’t seem to map well with official reaction, which was more stringent in most places than parade cancellation.  “In San Francisco, for instance, theatres and cinemas were hurriedly closed and the municipal authorities issued an ordinance mandating the wearing of gauze masks in public.”  That was much more stringent than a one-time cancellation of a parade, yet over those six months San Francisco’s mortality rate from influenza was higher (0.66%)1 than Philadelphia’s (0.50%) and much higher than that of St. Louis (0.28%).  “Boston had churchless Sundays”—0.60%.  In Washington, D.C. “it became an offense for the sick to leave their homes”—0.57%.  (Quotes from Living with Enza: The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 by M. Honigsbaum, p. 122.)

Now, I can see ways to poke holes in my own argument, the way I was taught in school and the way most repeaters of the parade-no-parade factoid don’t.  (On average, the shorter facts are, the faker they are.)  Older coastal cities were probably more likely to have a higher population density than midwestern cities and than more recently developed ones like Los Angeles, growing up around trolleys and cars instead of horse and foot.  And, too, exactly what other anti-flu measures did each of these cities enact, and when, and how long did their restrictions last?  What was the average age of their population?  Perhaps most important, as you can see, over the ten weeks when the flu was at its worst Philadelphia was by a small margin the worst city2, even when compared only to other major coastal cities, and the short term matters a lot today, because our primary goal is the slowing of the infection rate until science can catch up, and the prevention of the overwhelming of the health care system.  All of these are perfectly valid objections (albeit on the side of we-don’t-know-yet, which suggests to me that we shouldn’t say yet.) and the various social-distancing measures that the target of my critique supports are by and large good.

Still.  My point is this: it bears pointing out that despite the good intentions of the repeaters of the meme and despite the fact that social distancing does work, this is a prime example of how history can be distorted for social purposes.  History doesn’t work that way.  Fake news does, and so in the debate about it we ought to raise the question: what do we do about fake news when it’s proffered with good intentions and has good results?

  1. Note that these figures do not align with those in the chart to the right, due in part to slightly different time periods and in part to different mortality calculations.  San Francisco’s is higher either way, though.
  2. It should be noted, though, that Philadelphia’s mortality rate after its awful experience was far lower than most cities’ rate; see the second and third columns of the contemporary chart above.