Why a plague of Thanksgiving past still haunts our present

When influenza hit in 1918, US public health experts weren't clear and political leaders didn't know better. Ours should.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

In November 1918, American service members were returning home from the First World War, thought to be the war to end all wars. There had been a decrease in new cases of the strain of influenza that had killed 300,000 Americans in a matter of months. The national mood was one of having made it through something, and of having a reason to celebrate. And so, without a clear message from political or public health leadership, people did what they'd done for years: they gathered for Thanksgiving, an all-American holiday that commemorates the country's earliest days and brings families together around turkey and pie.

They were, in turn, hit with tens of thousands of more cases of influenza. Some individuals and some cities did cancel their Thanksgiving plans. But enough went ahead to cause a significant third wave.

[see also: Coronavirus and the geopolitics of disease]

There is one major difference, however, between 1918 and 2020 (besides the 102 years that have passed): public health experts have been quite clear that Americans should not travel this Thanksgiving holiday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people to stay home – and yet millions of Americans decided to travel anyway, shocking public health experts.

In some ways, this flouting of expert advice is motivated by emotions perhaps similar to those that people had in the past. People today are tired of the pandemic, of living with only their households (or, in some cases, only themselves). There is also a sense of having got through something, what with positive news about vaccine development and the seemingly never-ending presidential election finally behind us. It has been a long and terrible year, and people want to end it with their loved ones. It's worth the risk, they tell themselves, to see their families.

[See also: The Biden transition is at last under way, but the delay could prove costly]

But another possible reason why some people are travelling didn't feature in 1918, which is our worsening political polarisation.

At the start of this pandemic, there was no need to make a partisan issue out of wearing masks, staying at home and taking the precautionary measures seriously. But the president and his adult children claimed criticism of his handling of the crisis was a Democratic hoax, and Republican senators followed suit.

And so it is for Thanksgiving. Ahead of the holiday, Republican senator Ted Cruz tweeted out an image of a turkey under the words "come and take it". Republican congressman Jim Jordan tweeted: "Don't cancel Thanksgiving. Don't cancel Christmas. Cancel lockdowns." That America is not in lockdown and nobody has cancelled Thanksgiving, which can be celebrated within households, evidently did not appear to enter into the congressman's calculation; that his state of Ohio has seen nearly 400,000 cases of and more than 6,000 deaths from Covid-19 apparently didn't, either.

We know more now than we did in 1918, in part because of the example of the past. We know that if people travel and come together to gather indoors for an activity that requires us to remove masks (eating and drinking), cases will very likely go up. Hospitalisations will likely go up. Deaths will likely go up.

The public health experts weren't clear in 1918; ours were. The political leaders didn't know better in 1918, but ours do. People couldn’t foresee what was coming in 1918. We can now.

[see also: What the Spanish Flu pandemic teaches us today]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

Free trial CSS