Woman on phone in Hong Kong during 2009 swine flu epidemic

It’s good to talk

The 2009 swine flu pandemic was characterised by open communication – unlike previous pandemics

In 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson held an iron fist on government communications, which he believed were vital to maintain morale.

His adviser, Arthur Bullard, told him: “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms… There is nothing in experience to tell us one is always preferable to the other… The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

Ignorance isn’t bliss

So when the Spanish flu pandemic hit the USA in September 1918, Wilson said nothing and public officials did little but utter reassuring words. Chicago’s Director of Public Health concluded: “It is our job to keep people from fear. Worry kills more than the disease.” Newspapers toed the line, rarely questioning official pronouncements.

In the absence of realistic information wild theories took off – and people were scared. Communication systems came close to collapse. According to the Red Cross, people “were starving to death not for lack of food but because the well were too panic-stricken to bring food to the sick”.

The 2009 swine flu pandemic, by contrast, played out in a remarkably public way. The outbreak in Mexico was world news almost immediately. International and national agencies generally attempted to communicate rapidly and openly with the public. Media reporting was, by and large, responsible. In the days of the internet, blogs and twittering, information cannot be easily contained.

Although the mildness of swine flu played its part, there were few signs of public panic. Another of Woodrow Wilson’s advisers, Walter Lippmann, told him that most citizens were “mentally children”. Perhaps the first pandemic of the information age has proved him wholly wrong. 

Lead image:

Woman on the phone during Hong Kong during 2009 swine flu epidemic.

missmonet/Flickr CC BY NC ND

References

Questions for discussion

  • Do you think the media reports outbreaks and epidemics well, or does it tend to sensationalise?
  • Does the media have a responsibility to report accurately?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Influenza special issue’ in October 2009 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Topics:
Health, infection and disease, History
Issue:
Influenza special issue
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development