President Trump’s Desire to Reopen Businesses Quickly is DangerousRoundup
tags: public health, quarantine, Donald Trump, coronavirus
Christopher McKnight Nichols is an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, associate professor of history and director of the Oregon State University Center for the Humanities. He is the author of "Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age" and editor of the forthcoming volume "Rethinking Grand Strategy."
Recently President Trump and his allies suggested that measures adopted to slow the spread of coronavirus might be more damaging than the disease itself. Bringing society to a standstill has critical social and economic costs. But the benefit may be hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of lives saved, as many state and local leaders understand.
As our communities increasingly lock down, history provides vital insights about the importance of honest government communication, trust in officials and proactive efforts to get ahead and stay ahead of a public health emergency. Considering the 1918-19 influenza epidemic can remind us what it takes to collectively sacrifice for the greater good. It also suggests that at times of crisis state and local leaders have been particularly important, especially when there are tensions between state and national responses.
The Great War provided the context and propelled the martial language and approaches to the spread of influenza in 1918. That novel virus probably originated in Kansas in early 1918 and reached New Zealand by late spring. Influenza ultimately infected roughly 20 percent of the world’s population, killing some 50 million people in 15 months (more than the Black Death in the Middle Ages, more than all those killed in WWI and World War II combined) and approximately 675,000 Americans (when the population numbered 103 million).
When it swept across the United States, the country was in the midst of a draft, with widespread anti-German sentiment, and with a wartime state suppressing free speech. In response, politicians and officials, hyper-nationalist patriots, journalists and public health chiefs alike spouted lines about minimal risk. They suggested the disease resembled the common cold and objected to public health measures that would infringe on their freedoms or the U.S. war effort.
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