This horrific disconnect between reassurances and reality destroyed the credibility of those in authority. People felt they had no one to turn to, no one to rely on, no one to trust.
Ultimately society depends on trust. Without it, society began to come apart. Normally in 1918 America, when someone was ill, neighbors helped. That did not happen during the pandemic. Typically, the head of one city’s volunteer effort, frustrated after repeated pleas for help yielded nothing, turned bitter and contemptuous:
Hundreds of women who are content to sit back had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy, had the unfathomable vanity to imagine that they were capable of great sacrifice. Nothing seems to rouse them now. They have been told that there are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high and they still hold back.3
That attitude persisted outside of cities as well. In rural Kentucky, the Red Cross reported “people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick” (An Account of the Influenza Epidemic, 1919).
As the pressure from the virus continued, an internal Red Cross report concluded, “A fear and panic of the influenza, akin to the terror of the Middle Ages regarding the Black Plague, [has] been prevalent in many parts of the country” (The Mobilization of the American National Red Cross, 1920). Similarly, Victor Vaughan, a sober scientist not given to overstatement, worried, “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization could easily … disappear … from the face of the earth within a matter of a few more weeks” (Collier, 1974).
Of course, the disease generated fear independent of anything officials did or did not do, but the false reassurances given by the authorities and the media systematically destroyed trust. That magnified the fear and turned it into panic and terror.
It is worth noting that this terror, at least in paralyzing form, did not seem to materialize in the few places where authorities told the truth.
One lesson is clear from this experience: In handling any crisis, it is absolutely crucial to retain credibility. Giving false reassurance is the worst thing one can do. If I may speculate, let me suggest that almost as bad as outright lying is holding information so closely that people think officials know more than they say.