Pandemic, then and now

Ann McFeatters

TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE — Four and a half months into the year of the killer virus, it is disheartening to realize we are making the same mistakes in dealing with one of history’s worst pandemics that we made in 1918, 102 years ago.

During the Great Influenza, President Woodrow Wilson, immersed in fighting World War I, ignored the disease as he created a mammoth war bureaucracy.

Even as influenza’s death toll climbed into the hundreds of thousands, he cheer-led for the nation to fight — Germans, not the virus.

He himself contracted influenza, resulting in lasting damage to his health and bad decisions that soon put the world at war again.

Today, Donald Trump has been “cheerleading” for the economy, refusing to admit the severity of the crisis, purposefully exacerbating tensions with China, pushing business to reopen too soon, promoting ridiculous conspiracy theories and lying about testing.

In 1918, the New York Public Health Department, once the best in the world, was taken over by political hacks, who muffed the chance to contain the virus epicenter.

The U.S. Public Health Service also was marked by ineffective leadership, disrespected by serious scientists.

Today, the highly reputed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been sidelined.

No briefings.

Its guidelines for reopening the economy delayed and disparaged. Its scientists ignored because of a mandate for loyalty to an uninformed president, more worried about re-election than mounting deaths.

Then, as now, there was an unenforced national quarantine, each locality left to act on its own.

Then, as now, governors and mayors begged Washington for help and received almost nothing.

Then, as now, leaders lied and lost trust.

Then, as now, the virus manifested in horrible, perplexing ways.

The numbers of influenza cases and deaths were vastly underreported; at least 50 million people died worldwide, 675,000 out of 105 million Americans.

Thousands died alone.

Political leaders ridiculed the idea of a second or third wave.

Then, as now, there was initial scoffing that the virus was worse than the normal flu, its frightening contagiousness and lethality denied.

Fake treatments were rampant.

Then, as now, service members were packed into congested areas, spreading the disease.

Officers who tried to protect them were demoted.

Despite the dangers, troops continued to be shipped to Europe to fight, all too often dying before they reached the battlefield.

The author of “The Great Influenza,” John M. Barry, called the troopships “death ships” and “floating caskets.”

In March, a Navy aircraft carrier commander warned his sailors were in danger.

He was relieved of command; hundreds got sick, as did he.

COVID-19 has invaded the White House.

Trump, refusing to wear a mask, asked to meet World War II veterans.

“You didn’t worry about me, you only worried about them,” Trump complained when asked about the potential danger to the old soldiers.

With thousands more dying, Trump repeatedly insisted the virus would “just disappear,” without a vaccine. “We’ll never see it again.”

Scientifically impossible.

Vice President Mike Pence declared in late April, “I think honestly, if you look at the trends today, by Memorial Day weekend we will have this coronavirus epidemic behind us.”

Not happening.

Then, as now, it was often too late to help. Walking and talking victims, seemingly on the mend, fell dead minutes later.

Then, as now, the virus destroyed the lung, heart or kidneys and killed not just the elderly and vulnerable but also healthy young adults.

The medical establishment was overwhelmed, frustrated and at risk.

Children, then as now, seemed fine and later developed serious health complications.

Then, private nurses were kidnapped and held hostage.

Now, medical personnel are held hostage to a lack of medical supplies and an unyielding sense of duty.

Doctors’ warnings went unheeded in 1918.

Today, “It’s a horrible thing to think we could have done something, and we didn’t,” mourned Dr. Rick Bright after weeks of political inaction.

He headed the agency trying to find a COVID-19 vaccine.

Then he was fired for disputing Trump’s false insistence that a drug unproven to fight the virus be funded with millions of taxpayer dollars.

Barry, remarkable historian of the 1918 pandemic, concluded after seven years of research into its horror and terror:

“If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis. You don’t manage the truth. You tell the truth.”

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may send emails to Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

Tribune Wire


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