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 “: 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 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.
The influenza epidemic of 1918 was ruthless. It killed somewhere between fifty million and a hundred million people—and that was in a far less populated, dense, mobile, and globalized world. The new coronavirus is aggressive, and governments and populations that do not act with alacrity and discipline will suffer for it.
Barry and I talked a long time about the parallels between 1918 and 2020, about what we know about the two viruses; about the similarities and differences between the two pandemics; about how best to cope with COVID-19 and what the virus, and our response to it, portends. It is the duty and obsession of the historian to focus entirely on the past. Here, John M. Barry, who knows the deadliest pandemic in history better than anyone, speculates, as well, on what the new coronavirus means for our lives in the future.
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- How people cope and create new customs amid a pandemic.
- What it means to contain and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.
- How much of the world is likely to be quarantined?
- Donald Trump in the time of coronavirus.
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine could be widely available.
- We are all irrational panic shoppers.
- The strange terror of watching the coronavirus take Rome.
- How pandemics change history.