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100 years ago, America’s leadership floundered during a pandemic. Today, history is repeating itself

SHARE 100 years ago, America’s leadership floundered during a pandemic. Today, history is repeating itself
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President Donald Trump laughs as he delivers remarks about American energy production during a visit to the Double Eagle Energy Oil Rig, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas.

Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

Twice in a century, the United States has been emotionally, physically and economically crippled by a pandemic. Both times, the president of the United States provided neither a clear message nor hope for a nation under siege.

In 1918-19, Woodrow Wilson chose to ignore the Spanish flu pandemic, the deadliest in history, which killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans out of a population of 105 million. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, President Donald Trump has been far from silent. Instead, he has repeatedly told the American people the coronavirus will one day “just disappear.”

By April 1918, when the Spanish flu first appeared in Kansas, the United States had been at war with Germany for a year, and Wilson expected every element of the nation be enlisted in winning the conflict. That meant controlling information, having Americans make sacrifices, injecting the government into every facet of American life and creating great bureaucratic entities that focused all of the nation’s vital energy on the war effort.

The federal government showed a “reluctance, inability, and outright refusal,” John M. Barry wrote in “The Great Influenza,” “to shift targets.” Wilson did not make one “public statement about influenza,” nor is “there an indication he ever said anything privately.” Medical experts advocated wearing face masks, eliminating crowding and quarantining, but the White House made no mention of those recommendations.

There is not a world war distracting Trump. But for months, rather than confronting the coronavirus, he has offered conflicting messages, knee-jerk reactions, miracle cures, dismissive comments about the recommendations of medical experts, false claims and false statistics. He also leveled attacks on Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, undermined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and testily responded to, what he considers, “nasty questions” from reporters.

He has deflected blame for his administration’s lagging ability to test Americans for the coronavirus by insisting — without offering evidence — the fault was his predecessors.

Despite his protests, taking responsibility is his job. Too bad President Harry S. Truman didn’t leave the sign he kept on his desk in the Oval Office, “The Buck Stops Here,” as a reminder. 

Trump has stubbornly refused to acknowledge reality, passed the buck to state and local authorities and left the country to battle the virus with unenforced federal health guidelines, which he often contradicts or dismisses. Equally problematic are tweeting in support of protesters trying to “liberate” states from “stay-at-home restrictions,” suggestions to slow virus testing to avoid bad statistics, and desire to block billions of dollars for the states to conduct testing and contact tracing.

While most developed countries have managed to control the coronavirus crisis, the United States under Trump still has no cohesive national strategy and no national testing plan as case numbers continue to spike and deaths increase. America is still waiting for the Trump administration to offer a national response to fight the pandemic and workable guidance on reopening schools, testing and contract tracing.

Instead of doing what he was elected to do — lead — the president has mostly declined to wear a mask, hosted campaign rallies that likely spread the virus and held briefings that sound like rallies. By not wearing a mask for months, he sent a powerful signal to his followers that they don’t need to either. We are left to wonder what might have been if months ago the importance of wearing a mask in public had been presented as a patriotic act.

The poll numbers clearly suggest a course correction and its time the American people demand one. Despite expressing more concern about the virus at recent press briefings, Trump, as he always does, made false claims and said the virus “will disappear.” And predictably reminded us that we are “suffering from the China virus.”

Today, Americans face the same choice as their ancestors did in 1918. The Wilson administration’s lying about the severity of 1918 crises, Barry says, “created more fear, more isolation, and more suffering for everyone.” “Not knowing whom or what to believe, people also lost trust in one another. They became alienated, isolated. Intimacy was destroyed.” Sound familiar?

History is happening right now, and the storyline is ours to write. We need to come together as a nation. As a nation we can’t wait another minute for leadership at the White House. We need to listen to Fauci and the medical experts — wear masks and socially distance — or we can watch as children, parents, grandchildren, friends, neighbors and health care workers continue to die.

Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq,” and “Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties, 1774-2012.”