In September 1918, hundreds of men stationed at an overcrowded U.S. Army base 30 miles west of Boston began showing up at the hospital. Their faces, the director of the surgeon general’s Office of Communicable Diseases, would report, “wore a bluish cast; a cough brought up the bloodstained sputum.”
Experts recommended that no one from that base—Camp Devens—be transferred. Doing so, Army doctors warned, would lead to “thousands of cases of the disease, with many deaths.” They were overruled. The war was too important. On the trans-Atlantic voyage to the front, thousands got sick, and thousands died.
The so-called Spanish flu killed many more Americans than did World War I: 675,000 to 117,000. The disease infected up to 40% of the world’s population and killed between 50 million-100 million people, about two-thirds of them in a 10-week span between September and December of 1918; the war itself killed about 20 million people.
Though its origin is unknown, the first reported case was in Kansas in March 1918. Other early cases surfaced in France and China. But the U.S., France, and China were at war, and their governments restricted what newspapers could publish. Only when the king, prime minister, and cabinet officials of neutral Spain caught the virus did news of its spread get broadcast worldwide—hence, the misnomer “Spanish flu.”
The Wilson administration urged Americans not to take it too seriously. In mid-October, the surgeon general finger-wagged: “The present generation has been spoiled by having had expert medical and nursing care readily available.”
Even as the body count rose to unfathomable levels—in New York City, the flu killed 20,000 in 10 weeks. In Philadelphia, priests drove carts through the streets asking people to bring out their dead—the government suppressed the scope of the crisis, fearing that panic would undermine the war effort. That led to still more deaths. For example, Philadelphia scheduled a march to promote war bonds for late September. Doctors warned the city to cancel. The city’s newspapers declined to publish the warnings. The march was a huge success. Within four weeks, 47,000 Philadelphians came down with the flu; 12,000 of them died.
The coronavirus pandemic 102 years later doesn’t appear to be nearly as deadly.
As I write this, the virus has infected 90,000 people, mostly in China, and has caused more than 3,000 deaths. While the rate of growth in China appears to be declining, it is spreading rapidly elsewhere, particularly in Europe and across Asia.
In the U.K., Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned that up to 80% of the U.K.’s population could become infected, and a half-million Britons could die. He hasn’t ruled out taking drastic measures, including locking down entire cities, to contain the virus.
But like Wilson, President Trump doesn’t want you to take it too seriously. A fearmongering backseat driver during the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the world’s most famous germaphobe will face voters in the midst of his own public health crisis—and with little public credibility as currency to spend. Further complicating things, his go-to solution—travel bans from afflicted countries—won’t stave off the spread. Trump’s immediate concern is that the stock market had its worst week since the 2008 crash; some economists are starting to toss around the R-word, which would be fatal in November.
Trump’s priority is to calm markets by projecting control amid dysfunction. As always, there’s a lot of dysfunction.
Last month, the State Department overruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and brought back 14 infected cruise-ship passengers from Japan on the same plane as non-infected people. The CDC’s restrictive criteria for identifying potential coronavirus cases and faulty diagnostic tests have likely led to a deceptively low number of positive results. According to a Department of Health and Human Services whistleblower, a dozen DHHS employees were sent to meet the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, without protective gear or training. And over HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s objections, the administration asked Congress for a paltry $2.5 billion in emergency funds—it didn’t want to signal a real crisis.
At a press conference last Wednesday, Trump announced that he was appointing Vice President Mike Pence the head of his coronavirus task force—evidently because he feared that an outside czar might be disloyal. Pence, as governor of Indiana, badly botched his state’s handling of an AIDS flare-up. His first order of business was a mandate that no one comment on the coronavirus without his office’s approval.
Minutes before that press conference, Trump learned that the CDC had uncovered the first U.S. case of coronavirus not tied to foreign travel, the sign of its impending spread. He didn’t mention that, though. Instead, he assured the American people that it would all be over soon and praised his administration’s response.
“And again, when you have 15 people—and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero—that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” he said. The next night, he offered a self-contradictory take: “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear. And from our shores, we—you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.” The night after that, in South Carolina, he told his supporters that Democrats had politicized the pandemic and that “this is their new hoax.”
The next day, the first American died from coronavirus. The day after that, the second one did. As of Monday, the U.S. had at least 88 known coronavirus cases; including two in Tampa Bay.