The Great Pandemic and Lessons (we failed to learn) from History – Professor Joseph L. Graves Jr.

This is a reflection written by Professor Joseph L. Graves Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences at North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro, for the new series from The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace on Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic.

John Barry’s book: The Great Influenza first published in 2005 chronicled the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1918—1923.  The book documents how this disease claimed approximately 100 million lives worldwide.  However, while this disease was dubbed the “Spanish flu” its most likely origins were in Kansas, USA. It was carried to Europe by American troops being sent abroad to “make the world safe for democracy.”  One of the clearest lessons that this story reveals is the failure of America’s political leadership at all levels (federal, state, and local) accelerated the spread of the disease and cost lives.  Specifically, the federal government failed to heed the warnings of Army doctors concerning the severity of the epidemic. Instead of quarantining army posts with high incidences of the disease they allowed soldiers to be transported from base to base and to interact with the civilian public.  This was because they put Woodrow Wilson’s agenda of getting American troops into the war in Europe, above the safety of those troops and the civilian public.  

One of the saddest episodes in this pandemic was the impact it had on the city of Philadelphia.  Despite warnings from doctors, the director of the Department of Public Health Wilmer Krusen (a political appointee with little medical expertise) allowed the city’s Liberty Loan parade to occur on September 28, 1918.  Two days after the parade Krusen was forced to admit that the epidemic had now spread to the civilian population.  Within six months there were approximately 500,000 cases with over 16,000 deaths.

The failures of 1918 can in part be attributed to lack of scientific knowledge concerning the nature of the disease. Microbiology was in its infancy, the genetic code had not yet been discovered, and discipline of microbial evolution really did not exist. No such excuses can be made for the 2019 Corona virus pandemic. During the late 20th century virologists, evolutionary biologists, and epidemiologists predicted that the occurrence of viral pandemics would accelerate unless human beings made some serious changes in how we were living. Specifically we are now living in a perfect environment for the spread of infectious disease: high population densities in urban areas, growing livestock in high-density conditions, over utilization of antibiotics, accelerated encroachment on rainforests and other habitats, anthropogenic climate change, and global travel in hours as opposed to weeks. However, probably the most insidious aspect of our predisposition to epidemic is the increasing social stratification that exists in modern societies.

Sadly, the academic discipline of Public health has been advanced by studying epidemics that were driven by the disparities in wealth that have existed in human societies.  Survivorship from the Black Death (bubonic plaque, 1347—52) had much to do with the capacity to separate yourself and your family from the poor masses.  John Snow’s study of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic was traced to a contaminated water source, used mainly by the poor people of that district.  W.E.B. Du Bois’s sociological study of The Philadelphia Negro published in 1899 traced the disparate rates of tuberculosis incidence in African Americans to the poor social conditions experienced by this population.  Indeed these conditions are responsible for the ongoing disparities in prevalence and death of African Americans due to infectious disease going into the 21st century (Graves 2005).

In March, before data was available, I predicted disparate rates of COVID2019 infection and death would be observed in African Americans in my interview on Roland Unfiltered ( ).  Thus, as many scholars have pointed out, COVID2019 is only drawing into sharper focus the historical differential in the burden of sickness and death for persons of non-European ancestry in the United States.  In that same interview, I suggested that since health disparity was an already known fact in the United States, efforts to address the vulnerability of racial/ethnic minorities, incarcerated persons, and those in nursing homes should have been implemented.  No such action was taken by any level of government to address these problems until the horses had already left the barn.

As the debate now rages about how to “reopen” the country, we have an opportunity to learn from history.  The 1918 Great influenza did not “burn out” until 1923.  While most of the deaths occurred in 1918—1919, significant numbers of people died as transmission of the virus subsided.  There may be nothing that can be done to prevent this from also occurring with COVID2019. However we can learn something about how to prevent or at least to ameliorate the next pandemic.  Surprisingly the answer does not reside in advancing medical science, such as creating a vaccine or more efficacious anti-viral drugs.  Rather the answer resides in changing the social systems and power relations that continue to create the conditions that spawn pandemics. 

To understand this we must recognize that the underlying principles of social systems predict their dynamics and outcomes.  Capitalism (the private ownership of the means of production), while progressive in the 16th and early 17th centuries, has now become fully reactionary.  It social dynamic produces wealth disparity. For example, the top 10% of families in the US held 76% of its wealth, while the bottom 50% of families held only 1% of US wealth in 2013.  Ironically, it is many amongst this bottom 50% who continue to champion capitalism. In the United States the allegiance of the poor to the capitalist system is deeply tied to support for white supremacist ideology. 

The Reverend Martin Luther King recognized this irony in the concluding statements in his speech at the Alabama capital in the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.  He pointed out how Jim Crow had been maintained throughout the south by providing poor working class whites with the illusion of superiority over the Negro, describing how “when his wrinkled stomach cried out for food that his empty pockets could not provide…” that this pain was placated by Jim Crow.  Indeed today, poor and working class persons of European descent are literally dying of “white supremacy” as well described in Jonathan Metzel’s 2019 book. 

Thus, so long as capitalism is our economic system these adverse health outcomes cannot be reformed.  This is because there are serious public health implications of wealth disparity.  In a country that does not believe that all citizens have a right to quality medical care the bottom 50% of the US population will always be vulnerable to infectious disease. In addition, ongoing institutional racism will first visit infectious disease on the racially subordinated, but this will spread to all sectors of the population.

Since that reservoir of disease will always exist, those in higher socioeconomic groups will also be vulnerable. Thus, while the most-wealthy persons will always have the option of social distancing, they won’t be able to maintain social production. Therefore, I predict that the continuation of capitalism is a guarantee of human extinction, whether by pandemic, or some other evil (war, genocide, pollution, climate change) that this system’s dynamics will always produce.  This means that the historical lesson that we must learn from all past pandemics, is that our future survival as a species requires that we dismantle global capitalism and replace it with a social economic system that puts human needs in front of profit.


Barry, JM. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, (NY: Penguin Books), 2018.

DuBois, WEB. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (with an introduction by Elijah Anderson), (Philadelphia, U. Pennsylvania Press), 1996.

Graves, JL. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 2005.

Metzel, JM. Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Homeland (NY: Basic Books), 2019.

You can watch Dr. Graves Jr’s lecture for the Baha’i Chair here.

About the Author: 

Dr. Joseph Graves, Jr. is Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering at North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro. He received his Ph.D. in Environmental, Evolutionary and Systematic Biology from Wayne State University in 1988, making him the first African American evolutionary biologist in the United States.  He is a Fellow of the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a prestigious honor bestowed by his peers, and the recipient of numerous awards and research grants, including from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Graves was also selected as one of the “Sensational Sixty” for the 60-year commemoration of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, and he is the winner of the 2017 Black Engineer of the Year (BEYA) Innovation Award.


  1. What type of “social economic system” do you recommend would remedy the capitalistic system that governs our society? Thank you.

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