A legacy of embarrassment?
It is a fact that since day one, politics have been the source of many failures in this country as we continually redefine the very purpose of politics itself every four to eight years.
The security of the American people, the economic goals of America and health of the American community are three things that rarely intertwine. There is no President that wants to quarantine its people. No Congressman will be re-elected should she sign the order to close businesses and rarely (I did not say never) does a politician want to be blamed for the death of a population.
During our recent bout with COVID-19 and subsequent variants we experienced a great conundrum here in the United States because no longer were we walking by the biblical wisdom of quarantine and protection but rather we were navigating through opinions and compromising each decision in order to avoid offending too large a group of voters.
Remember, the Pandemic of 1918-1920 was at the tail end of a controversial and costly war. Decisions made during this time by a leader could make or break a career. It was all about optics and egos.
When a Norwegian boat docked at New York with over 200 live cases of the flu on board, the city health commissioner at the time claimed he was not concerned about allowing the sick to leave the boat and boasted that our soldiers were too tough to get sick!
At the same time, the Chief Surgeon of New York stated that the war could not be won if America stopped to worry about “the Spanish or any other kind of influenza”.
On that very day (September 3, 1918) the first civilian case of the deadly virus was admitted to Boston City Hospital as a parade with over 3000 sailors marched down the city streets in a “Win-the-War-for-Freedom” parade.
In early October, a fundraising event was held in Chicago gathering thousands and despite the warnings and obvious evidence that the disease did nothing but infect and kill, the crowds were told to attend but to later return home,
I don’t believe I heard THAT solution in 2020).
The stories and records are too numerous to share here although I wish I could because of the dark humor in so many of them. Politicians fought over whether or not to close entire cities in October of 1918 as the disease had only started to spread. These arguments often ended up in closing churches but not bars, bars but not schools, schools but not theaters and so forth. In one instance of such a political fight, the decision was finally made to leave the town of Hastings, Nebraska open because less than five positive cases had been found.
Four days later everything was closed due to the large number of positive cases in the community. A week later the obituary section was the largest portion of the local paper.
To continue to see how we have repeated mistakes rather than learn from history, I will stay on Hastings, Nebraska for a moment because I spent much of my adult life in the area and know its history well.
On October 10th, as the mistake became evident the declaration read that “closing theaters, churches, schools, pool rooms and card rooms is a precautionary measure”. Military pickets were placed surrounding the campus of the local college to prevent students from leaving and spreading the disease, but students that did not live on campus were still allowed to come and go freely.
It was compromises like this that brought the numbers in Hastings to 198 cases four days later.
Before we look back at this historical anecdote and wonder how they could have been so ignorant, let us not forget that in 2020 we declared a shut-down except for those that were “essential personnel” which was immediately followed by lawsuits and arguments as to who was essential. Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, we determined rather quickly that everyone was essential and the lock-downs became more lip service than a protective mandate.
During the 1918 Pandemic, the government timidly attempted to control the public. There was a fine line between quarantine and containment, control and dictatorship. Politically, the nation had been through some difficult times so there was much political tip-toe work that had to be done to not rile the masses.
Knowing this, one can see the predicament both sides of the aisle were in in 2020 on the heels of the riots in Ferguson, the rise of the Black Lives Matters organization and the political upheaval of a failed removal of a President that was less than gentle.
In 1918, the mandates and declarations came as they did in 2020, first as voluntary requirements and then in mandatory ones. More often, the mandatory ones were marketed as voluntary as well, depending on who was making the declaration and to whom. Mandates and advisories in 2020 were no different than in 1918, each one targeted a specific group but was written to look as general as possible.
In 1918, people were urged to use a handkerchief as a mask and to practice social distancing. Unlike 2020 however, it was not uncommon for a policeman to ticket someone for spitting in the street or entering a public establishment without a face covering. In today’s communities, while restrictions became mandates and mandates became laws, there has been little to no enforcement.
After a short while, marginalized groups across 1918 America began to grow cynical of the requirements and restrictions being placed during this disease spread, especially in communities where the spread had not been significant or in communities of minority groups who felt targeted. This doubt grew quickly and soon the government was faced with the protesting of not only the restrictions but even the vaccination programs that followed.
I hope I do not have to waste space here explaining how similar this all sounds to our experiences in early 2020 and the early days of what I am calling the end without an end.
In his book “More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War”, author Kenneth Davis wrote:
“Fear driven by propaganda, censorship and lies were so much a part of the spread of Spanish flu. People were misled, often deliberately, by officials.”
In light of our most recent crisis, it is worth examining the social dynamics of 1918 and 2020 side by side and how we have created a legacy of embarrassment.
Maybe we can do better next time?