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Image Credit: during the Spanish Flu epidemic, a crowd of approximately 200,000 people gathered for the Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia, Sept. 28, 1918
Sins of Omission

Epidemic for the Record Books

As the hysterical coronavirus overreaction crashes our economy, I can’t help but think of the Spanish flu, which took some 675,000 American lives in 1918 and 1919. Adjusting for the difference in the size of the American population then and now, that number would be equivalent to two million deaths today. I’ll be surprised—I’m writing this in late March—if COVID-19 takes as many as 50,000 American lives, or proportionally 1/40th of the lives lost to the Spanish Flu. Even some of the current projections of 100,000 or more deaths would still be only a small fraction of those who died of the Spanish flu.

The Spanish flu has been called America’s forgotten epidemic. It was not forgotten in my family. My mother was one of 11 children and the age range from youngest to oldest spanned 20 years. When my mother and several of her sisters were still in their single digits, two of their older brothers were already cops and the oldest sister was married with a son. That sister and her husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic. Their toddler son was taken in by my mother’s family and raised as a little brother. Until I was five or six, I thought he was another one of my uncles—he was of the right age—and not, as I learned, my cousin.

The origin of the Spanish flu is greatly debated, but it is universally agreed that it did not originate in Spain. However, Spanish newspapers were the...

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