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Documentary details lethal influenza of 1918

Terrified by the sudden death all around them, Americans sought protection from the dreaded influenza epidemic of 1918. (Courtesy of American Red Cross)

Terrified by the sudden death all around them, Americans sought protection from the dreaded influenza epidemic of 1918. (Courtesy of American Red Cross)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

People walking around with masks.

Health care systems pushed to capacity, caring for the infected, as a virus runs its course throughout the world.

And yet, somehow, we didn’t learn the first time around, says filmmaker Robert Kenner.

Twenty-two years ago, Kenner was at the helm of the documentary, “Influenza 1918,” for the American Experience series.

It told of a virus – known as the Spanish flu – which spread rapidly throughout the world.

Kenner says the world is experiencing a similar event with COVID-19.

“In 1918, here’s this influenza that killed four times the people of World War I,” he said. “It’s cataclysmic. It’s so easy to see how shortsighted we can get. We’ve done it again.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, American Experience will be airing “Influenza 1918” at 7 p.m. Tuesday on New Mexico PBS.

Kenner has since worked on such projects as “The Confession Killer,” “Food, Inc.” and “Command and Control.”

The documentary starts on the morning of March 11, 1918, when a young private reported to the Army hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, complaining of fever, a sore throat, and headache. Then, another sick soldier appeared, then another and another. By noon, the hospital had more than 100 cases; in a week, there were 500. Forty-eight soldiers died at Fort Riley that spring. No one knew why.

Before it was over, the flu would kill more than 600,000 Americans – more than all the combat deaths of the 20th century combined.

Kenner said during the time, America was at war. There were call-ups, blood drives and troop shipments were in high gear.

American soldiers were returning home with the flu.

In October 1918, more than 195,000 people died in America alone.

“What’s so amazing to see is that history is repeating itself,” Kenner said. “People were in denial and we see how wrong they were. Yet, today we are doing the exact same thing.”

Kenner said humans trust science on many levels but don’t trust it when it has the potential to disrupt daily life.

“A virus is more immediate,” he said. “There’s something we can do. We can continue to wash our hands more. We can physically distance ourself from each other.”

Decades after completing the film, Kenner is surprised how much we never really knew about the 1918 flu.

“The thing that we need to realize is that viruses don’t have borders,” Kenner said. “I knew from making this film that the world is so interconnected that it’s going to spread everywhere. It can’t be fought on a state level. It has to be fought from a world wide level.”

Years later, Kenner is still curious about one thing.

“What strikes me is how invisible this event was,” he says of the 1918 flu and working on the film. “It was the largest event in people’s lives and they saw the world differently. Yet it didn’t reach public consciousness. It disappeared just as fast as it left a huge impact on the world.”

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