As America grapples with the burgeoning coronavirus crisis, the federal government seems determined to repeat the mistakes made a century ago, when the worst pandemic in human history ravaged the country, beginning in Boston.
In September 1918, the Spanish Flu virus burst forth from the waterfront naval station, spreading across the city, the state and the country. By the time it burnt itself out nearly a year later, some 750,000 people were dead in the United States; part of a global death toll estimated to exceed 50 million.
Too many of our federal government’s responses in the first weeks of this pandemic bore an eerie resemblance to those just over a hundred years ago, when political considerations prevailed over public health and contributed to the American carnage. Only in recent days, as leaders of state and local governments have wrested control from Washington, have those hundred-year-old lessons been heeded.
Well after the coronavirus had spread across the country, President Donald Trump said in a nationally televised interview that he had a “hunch” the mortality rate was lower than scientists believed, and that infected people could get better by “going to work.” It brought to mind President Woodrow Wilson and his supporters, who were obsessively protective of public morale and the existential need for unwavering support of the effort to fight and win World War I. Economic considerations such as manufacturing productivity would be at risk if large numbers of sick workers stayed home from their jobs making ships and guns and boots. So, in the face of a highly contagious killer, the sick were urged to stay on the job. As a result, people fell dead on factory floors and spread the disease to their coworkers.
The Trump administration’s reluctance to address travel restrictions and limit public gatherings was reminiscent of the stubborn refusal of 20th-century Massachusetts politicians to cancel parades and rallies to celebrate war victories and raise money to fund the fight. Five massive parades wound through the streets of Boston during that deadly September, marking occasions like Labor Day or Liberty Loan war bond drives. Each created a hovering cloud of sweat and breath and droplets of death.
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The president’s recent prediction that coronavirus will “go away” when the weather warms in April, or his wishful belief that the outbreak will soon end “like a miracle,” are as dangerous as the surgeon general’s ridiculous 1918 warning to “avoid tight shoes.” Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s contradictory claims about available patient testing are strikingly similar to when Boston’s health commissioner claimed “a half hour’s sun bath means death to the germs” on the same day a Navy official declared that “a killing frost would knock out the germ.”
Perhaps the most critical lesson from the Spanish Flu era is that government and society can never be sufficiently prepared for a pandemic. In Boston, the country’s foremost infectious disease specialist, Dr. Milton Rosenau, was stationed at Chelsea Naval Hospital and treated the very first influenza patients. He took all the precautions so familiar today: testing, quarantine, medication and identification of anyone who’d had contact with those infected. But math overwhelmed science, and cases multiplied faster than doctors could stop them. Within weeks, virtually every Massachusetts hospital was closed by overcrowding, public gatherings were canceled and undertakers ran out of caskets
In these still-early days of the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration’s focus has too often been on political objectives — the economy, the stock market and, ultimately, reelection — instead of efforts to keep its citizens alive. There was a terrible price for creating an illusion of normalcy the last time a pandemic ravaged our country, and we seem doomed to pay again.
Skip Desjardin is a Google executive and author of “September 1918: War, Plague and the World Series.”
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