Historian John Barry on the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Influenza of 1918Historians in the News
tags: Spanish flu, 1918, historian, coronavirus
In the late summer of 2005, I packed a small bag and headed to New Orleans, to help cover Hurricane Katrina for this magazine. I flew into Houston—the airport in New Orleans was closed—and the book I read on the flight was John M. Barry’s “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.” It was already becoming clear that the terrible storm that had ravaged the South in 1927 resonated with what was happening again in the cities and towns along the Gulf of Mexico. And now, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, another of Barry’s books, published in 2004, becomes invaluable: “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
Barry lives in an airy house in the French Quarter of New Orleans. His living room is bright. There are tall windows that let in the afternoon sun. I know these details of interior design in the way of the moment—that is, we talked the other day via Zoom, that vital means of connection at a time of mandated physical distance. Barry is seventy-two, and cheerfully allowed that, although he and his wife have gone out briefly for quick, careful strolls in the neighborhood, they are mainly holed up at home. Like everyone. And discipline is the necessary thing. At a time of containment, “straying can kill,” he said.