Comparing US Government Responses to Pandemics a Century Apart

Lucas Welinder COVID-19 Apr 1, 2020

While the situation in 1918 was different compared to that of today, the Influenza Pandemic can still be compared to the current COVID-19 Pandemic, both in terms of the scale of the crisis and government response. For this article, I'm going to only look at how the US was affected in 1918, but include major international milestones that have happened recently in the COVID - 19 outbreak.

First 1918 let’s start with a rundown of the more important events in 1918:

  • Spring: Spanish newspapers begin reporting cases of a serious influenza. They are able to do this as Spain was neutral during WWI and therefore did not censor its press.
  • March 11: First American case is reported on an Army Camp in Kansas. By the end of the day, over 60 more soldiers would report sick.
  • Summer: With little Federal response, Public Health Officials in Philadelphia issue warnings about the “Spanish Flu”. The virus is tracked to major international shipping routes.
  • September: Deaths reach 12,000, Surgeon General Dr. Victor Vaughn visits Camp Devins (Boston) and reports he is “stunned” and that “the bodies are stacked like cordwood.” 5th: Massachussets State Dept. of Health issues warning, 13th: Surgeon General informs public on how to detect symptoms; NYC Health Commissioner claims to see “No danger;” 28th: Congress approves $1M to study flu.
  • October 19th: Dr. C.Y. White announces cure and it is widely distributed but proves a total failure. 30th: Washington State makes six-ply gauze masks mandatory, yet many remark they are utterly ineffective.
  • January (1919) 19th: All schools reopen in Seattle, other schools follow nationwide.

Now let's take a look at the current pandemic's milestones.

Dec 31st: Chinese Gov. confirms the treatment of an unknown respiratory illness

January 11: First death (61 yr old man)
20th : Cases begin to appear in other countries
23rd: Chinese city of Wuhan is quarantined
30th : WHO declares Global Health Emergency
31st: President Donald Trump restricts travel to China

February 2: First death outside of China in the Philippines
7th: Whistleblower Dr. Li Wengliang dies of the virus
27th: Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr warns a luncheon of Wealthy constituents that the economic fallout of the coronavirus will be dire, then proceeds to sell his stock.
29th: First death in the United States

March 11th: Trump restricts all travel to the European Union. One expert compares it to “locking the door with the murderer in the house”
13th: National Emergency Declared
15th : CDC begins to recommend restricting gatherings of over 50 people
19th : China reports zero local infections for the first time
26th : US now has more cases than any other nation, with over 102,000

Comparing the two outbreaks, it's easy to see similarities. In both cases, the virus originated abroad, and we had ample time to prepare ourselves. In both cases, there was a lackadaisical Initial Federal response, so much so that the States and local governments took matters into their own hands, and in both cases, there were eventually severe disruptions to daily life.

The government's sluggishness in 1918 can be explained to some degree. WWI was still being fought, so a deadly disease causing havoc would be quietly suppressed. Furthermore, the virus itself was still the flu, which, being a regular occurance, could at least partly explain why some officials didn't see it as a pressing issue. Finally, there just wasn't infrastructure in place to deal with massive pandemics yet (take the CDC--it wasn't created until the 1940's).

In terms of large grants of money, Congress did approve $1 million to study this new strain of flu, which is about $17 million today. While this might be little compared to the massive bailouts being handed out currently, the US was at war, and so most likely made an effort to diverting the money from the stream put into guns, planes, and ships.

The current administration's actions, however, should have gone far further. Not only was its response to a new, deadly disease nonexistent until a month after deaths began in Wuhan, China, but the Administration had acted counterproductively before the outbreak had even begun. Along with cutting the budget of the CDC, it eliminated the Pandemic Unit of the NSC - the group best prepared to carolinate a response to this very thing - in May of 2018. This is coupled with the fact that unlike the Wilson Administration (which led the country in 1918), this Administration did have infrastructure in place for this and wasn't at war at the time of the outbreak.

Now that isn't to say the federal government has done nothing. It cut or closed travel to China, then Europe, and has passed economic stimulus bills that seem to grow exponentially in size - first two billion, then 200, then finally a 2 trillion dollar package in late March. Even these measures are only half-effective. As Jeremy Konyndyk put it, “travel bans are like locking the doors after the killer has already entered the house." The economic stimulus packages prior to the most recent one (as of April 1st) were also only partially successful--with some companies simply taking federal money and buying back their stock to raise its value (it wasn't the average American that benefited- it was the top brass). The $2 Trillion package, however, has provisions to ban such usage of federal aid and enables unemployed Americans to receive aid directly---not just hope the companies will work in their interests.

In short, the 1918 pandemic garnered relatively little federal response for three reasons. A lack of protocol or institutions, the state of being at war and the fact it was only a mutation of a reoccurring and well-known virus. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has resulted in stimulus packages, travel bans, and States and other federal agencies taking matters into their own hands. While the current response goes further than anything done in 1918, the current government had far more resources at its disposal and should have been far more prepared than its overall performance has demonstrated.


1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline | Pandemic Influenza (Fl...

1918 Influenza Pandemic: A United States Timeline

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