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Street Talk

By Mickey Howley
WVMSA Director

John Barry is a history writer. One of his books, “The Great Influenza” is about the last world-wide pandemic in 1918. That book was published in 2004. When the book was first published, it was on the New York Times best seller list for 52 weeks. President Bush read it and the real possibility of such a threat motivated him to get the first pandemic response plan going. 

Fast forward to 2020. Barry’s book is back on the list, number one on the paperback list this time. When he was called about 10 days ago with that news of his book’s making the number one spot, something which is very unexpected for a 16 year-old book, Barry reacted. 

“It’s painful to me, not satisfying,” he said. The death toll is high and rising every day, he explained, because President Donald Trump and other world leaders failed to heed the lessons of 1918-19 in a timely fashion.

Over the past two months, Barry has been exchanging data and strategy with a network of scientists and health care professionals who are on the front lines around the world fighting the pandemic.

Barry also has been giving many TV and newspaper interviews summarizing the 1918-19 tragedy known popularly as the Spanish flu and offering the key lessons for mitigating the current pandemic: Leaders must tell the truth, without delay, and everyone must practice social distancing.

 I have not read “The Great Influenza,” but I will. What I have read by Barry is another history book he wrote. That book is set mainly in Mississippi. “Rising Tide” is about the 1927 Mississippi River flood. In that book, Barry not only chronicles the human misery and immediate destruction of that flood, but also the long range effect the flood had in terms of population and economy. And how local, state, and national leadership either rose to the occasion or failed miserably. 

“Rising Tide” was published in 1997 and Barry had 70 years of time to see the results. That flood changed Mississippi, especially Delta towns. That combined with the Great Depression two years later and it is pretty easy to say that area of the state never really recovered.

When you’re in the thick of a disaster or in this case, a pandemic, it is hard to say how things will pan out in the long run. In the short run, it will be more stay at home and economic hardship. Ten million Americans filed for unemployment in the last two weeks, that obliterated the old record. 

The stock market fell like a lead balloon. No one disputes that we are in a recession now, only the speed of how we got there is numbing. In Main Street we talk about sustainability and how Main Street is the center for social and economic activity in a community. That resiliency is going to be put to the test as well in the coming months. 

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