Doing some quick searches in response to our co-blogger’s co-blogger’s post about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, I came across the following chart detailing the ratio of reported cases to deaths in San Fransisco. Not only is it a priceless statistical representation of panic, it also captures the malleability of even professional opinion. To wit:
I’ve highlighted the number of cases in red because blood is the color of riot—and for legibility. With certainty, we can say the author of this study, W.H. Kellogg, captured something of cultural significance when he rocketed his data up and off the y-axis. But the convergence of the incidence and death rates between the 23rd and 30th of November may be even more interesting. How do we account for the fact that, for one short week, everyone who caught the disease died from it? Easy:
According to the 21 November article, because public health officials claimed that “the influenza epidemic had been stamped out,” at noon “[t]he shrieking of every siren in San Fransisco, blowing of whistles, clanging of gongs and the ringing of bells will . . . signal for throwing away the gauze face coverings” (9). Why were there no more new cases reported than there were deaths the next week?
Because someone said there wouldn’t be. So there weren’t. People caught colds and had the sniffles, but it wasn’t Spanish flu. Couldn’t be. The epidemic was over. Did you somehow sleep through the infernal cacophany last Tuesday? The city has no more need for mass-prophylaxis. Everyone who catches the bug now brought it with them on the boat, and everyone knows you can’t catch flu from boat-people. Wait—what do you mean, “How do I think it got here in the first place?” What? How come nobody told us—quick! Everyone! En masque en masse!
So said the San Fransisco Chronicle on 4 December, and back up the panic-axis we go . . .