An Opinion Pandemic
Contrarian viewpoints on Covid-19 policy in mainstream opinion journalism risk provoking dire consequences
Over the span of four long days in September 1918, two leading voices expressed dismay about what was then known as the “Spanish Influenza.” First, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Doane, who led the Health and Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, “forcefully” voiced that the Germans were behind the epidemic which had reached American shores earlier in the year, theorizing that German spies may have spilled the virus in a locale where a large number of Americans had gathered, such as a cinema.
“The Germans have started epidemics in Europe, and there is no reason why they should be particularly gentle with America,” Doane opined.
Then, a few days later, another opinion, by Surgeon General Rupert Blue of the Public Health Service, in an article in the editorial pages of the New York Times, downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, suggesting that smallpox, dysentery, and typhoid were much more worrisome.
Doane’s statement further fueled stateside anger towards the Germans, but may have helped shore up support for the remaining battles occurring thousands of miles away. Blue’s words may have swayed public opinion towards not taking the pandemic seriously — and cases across the U.S. continued to rise.
For most of 1918, the coverage of the pandemic was dangerously slim, attributed in part to President Woodrow Wilson’s disinterest in addressing it. Most of the coverage in major papers was thus about the war, only occasionally punctuated with influenza death statistics.
But precisely a month after these opinions were aired, the Times changed tack, dedicating over 1,000 words in the Sunday editorial pages to the views of a recent Russian immigrant, a physician named Michael A. Iogolevitch, MD, who had both witnessed the epidemic first-hand in Europe weeks earlier, and served on the front lines during another flu epidemic 16 years prior.
Iogolevitch’s opinion was invaluable. For one, he argued that the term “Spanish flu” was incorrect, and that “pulmonary flu” was more appropriate. More importantly, he advocated for isolating infected cases, ventilation, and…