From the Desk of Dr. Buckman: Covid-19, dengue, agenda-setting and historical context


Yesterday you read the grim news from Paraguay about not only the five cases of Covid-19 there but the far deadlier outbreak of dengue fever. This morning I received this “dispatch” from our Colleague Chris Mueller in Honduras, which raises a valid agenda-setting issue:

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of informing my family in Ottawa that Tegucigalpa has its first case of Covid-19, at which point they worried about us and suggested we travel to stay in Ottawa until the blows over. The pleasure part was actually an hour later, when I read online that Ottawa had gotten its first case of Covid-19 at the same time as Tegucigalpa. I suggested to my family that they fly down, as supposedly heat and sunshine will do wonders against the virus 😉
We have also been dealing with a severe dengue outbreak, which is now not getting any news coverage whatsoever.
Yesterday vening, the president of El Salvador closed the country’s borders to all traffic (air, land, sea). This, and the country hasn’t declared its first case. Trying to get ahead of the curve, I guess.
Good luck to all of us.

I couldn’t find anything more recent from English- or Spanish-language sources, but as of Dec. 25 there were 105,513 cases of dengue fever in Honduras and 177 fatalities, according to GardaWorld, a private security services website. Citing local health officials, the report calls it “the worst dengue epidemic in Honduras’ history” and said it is expected to continue spreading “over the near term.” I guess it won’t get any news coverage here until someone dies of it in Brownsville.

Finally, speaking of epidemics in historical perspective, “CBS Sunday Morning” had a segment this week titled “The 1918 flu pandemic, a cautionary tale.”

Nutshell: The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans and 50-100 million worldwide; “only” 8 million died on the battlefields of World War I, which was then raging. Unlike Covid-19, Spanish flu afflicted primarily people in their 20s, and there were lots of those in the trenches and training camps. Also unlike now, science had not yet discovered the existence of viruses, so medical professionals didn’t understand the disease that was killing people, any more than they understood the Black Death in the 14 century.

But the problem was compounded by President Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1917, which forbade newspapers from reporting information detrimental to the war effort. Martha Teichner interviewed John M. Barry, author of the book “The Great Influenza,” who blamed lack of information for increasing the death toll.

“Was that a license to lie to the American public?” Teichner asked.
“It was precisely that,” said Barry. . .”The biggest lesson from the 1918 pandemic is clearly to tell the truth.”
Teichner asked, “What are the consequences if the truth isn’t told?”
“I think more people will die, yeah. Clearly that was the case in 1918. People can deal with the truth. It’s the unknown that’s much scarier.”

The link to the 6:38 segment:

“My mother was 9 years old during the 1918 flu pandemic, in North Carolina, and she vividly remembered seeing trucks loaded with the coffins of soldiers who died of the flu at a nearby training camp.”

“News is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form, and . . . history is the pale and tranquil reflection of it.”
—Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain (1835-1910)
American journalist, novelist, short story writer, travel writer and humorist