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  • Writer's pictureJo Page

Pandemic Jeopardy

It's Pandemic Jeopardy! And since we don't have any Jeopardy buzzers to press or enough PPE, I'll just list the answer and you can write the question on scrap paper.

Here goes:

1.) "Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms....There are lifeless truths and vital lies...The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false."

2.) "The disease has about reached its crest. We believe the situation is well in hand. From now on the disease will decrease."

3.) "The best municipal public health department in the world was now run by a man with no belief in modern scientific medicine and whose ambitions were not in public health but in politics."

4.) [Fear is] "an important element to be bred in the civilian population. It is difficult to unite a people by talking only on the highest ethical plane. To fight for an ideal, perhaps, must be coupled with thoughts of self-preservation."

5.) "There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit....who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life....Such creatures of passion, loyalty and anarchy be crushed out."

Okay, I know. Pandemic's no fun without PPE. Jeopardy's no fun without a buzzer. Or with these quotations. But it's what I've got.

For quotation #1, do you think it's from a showrunner for Fox News? Seems like it could be.

#2 might be one of the press conferences you missed by our President, yes?

#3 sounds like one of those seditious NPR reporters apparently opining--even if these are the facts--because it's okay these days to say that if you don't like the facts, they aren't.

#4 is neither Machiavelli nor any number of possible bombastic, suit-jacketed, homophobic, racist and misogynist men of the Christian right.

And even though #5 definitely sounds as though it could have come from a Trump tweet, we know for sure that it didn't. Because he doesn't blush. And he doesn't admit.

No, each of these quotes came from John M. Barry's impeccably researched and eminently readable 2005 book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

I have a weird attraction to books, movies and lectures about plagues. (Yes, I said "weird." No need to remind me.) I thought The Great Influenza would add to my general knowledge of plagues. But I didn't think it would have much to say about where we are now and about how this Covid-19 pandemic is affecting us.

I was wrong.

So, #1 quotation is from journalist Arthur Bullard, who had been covering the World War I in Europe. A crony of a crony of President Wilson, Bullard paid lip service to the primacy of facts (sort of the 1918 version of "fair-and-balanced"?), but saw the goals of media in other, more expedient, terms.

#2 is from Lieutenant Commander R.W. Plummer, a physician and chief health officer for the Philadelphia naval district which was right about to experience and inaugurate the cytokine storm that characterized the 1918 pandemic as it ripped through Philadelphia and was militarily transited across the nation. A nightmare story.

#3 is the author of the book, John M. Barry, describing the Tammany-appointed health commissioner of New York City--after trusted division chiefs and respected physicians were sacked.

#4 is a quote by George Creel, Woodrow Wilson's hand-picked head of the newly created Committee on Public Information (and if that sounds a little Orwellian to you, it was).

#5 is a quote from the President of the United States. Just not our current one. It's from President Wilson, our last pandemic leader. As such. So we see that pandering and polarization are nothing new.

Do you feel better after our little game of Jeopardy? Probably not.

But it does point to a resurgent pattern of politically expedient truth-shifting. At the expense, it appears, of everything. How do we respond with compassion and firmness in a world that seems to de-value the former and viciously capitalize on the latter?

Let's work on that. In as many ways we can. And we can, I know. Or hope.

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