Is the coronavirus President Trump’s Hurricane Katrina? No. The hurricane, as severe as it was, and which President George W. Bush was blamed for mishandling, was a local event on the Gulf Coast. The COVID-19 virus is a global problem.
Natural disasters are unpreventable, but the response to them involves familiar actions of government and utilities — mobilizing supplies and relief workers. The water will eventually go down on its own; throw enough people at the problem, and eventually the power lines will get restrung. By contrast, pandemics are immune to such good intentions, which require us to look quite differently at the problem. There’s only so much that ordinary people can do to help a community after a hurricane or a flood — unless you happen to be a utility lineman.
There’s a lot that ordinary people can do to halt or at least slow down the spread of disease. We don’t need the government to tell us to wash our hands or avoid large crowds, although sometimes it helps if the government sets the tone. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has called on churches to cancel services for a while; Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has not. But ultimately churches don’t need the government to tell them what to do if they want to go ahead and protect their congregations. Given the stakes involved, it seems better to overreact than to underreact. God will understand.
This is a scary moment, but it’s also a clarifying one about what we do and do not need government for. We need the government to organize testing — somehow South Korea has tested nearly 111 times more people than the United States. Why is that? We also need the government to figure out some key policy questions that are more unique to the United States than to other nations with a more robust social safety net. What about people who don’t have paid sick leave? What about people who don’t have health insurance? A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and for lots of interesting reasons, the United States has a greater percentage of weak links than other industrialized nations. But we can all take precautions even if the government doesn’t tell us to. Conservatives should appreciate this useful illustration of the limited role of government in society; liberals should appreciate the opportunity to “think globally, act locally.” Pandemics don’t really care about your politics.
Still, the Hurricane Katrina question hovers — not just over the president but over the government and, ultimately, every public official. Consider two pertinent examples from the 1918 flu pandemic that killed anywhere from 17 million to 100 million people around the world, depending on which report you choose to believe. The flu ran across the United States while World War I was raging in Europe. In Philadelphia, the city was preparing for a Liberty Loan parade to promote war bonds. Public health director Wilmer Krusen assured people that this was just the regular flu.
History.com describes what happened: “Krusen insisted that the parade must go on, since it would raise millions of dollars in war bonds, and he played down the danger of spreading the disease. On Sept. 28, a patriotic procession of soldiers, Boy Scouts, marching bands and local dignitaries stretched two miles through downtown Philadelphia with sidewalks packed with spectators. Just 72 hours after the parade, all 31 of Philadelphia’s hospitals were full and 2,600 people were dead by the end of the week.”
By contrast, St. Louis health commissioner Max Starkloff did exactly the opposite. He wrote a commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that warned people to avoid large crowds. History.com goes on to tell us: “When a flu outbreak at a nearby military barracks first spread into the St. Louis civilian population, Starkloff wasted no time closing the schools, shuttering movie theaters and pool halls, and banning all public gatherings. There was pushback from business owners, but Starkloff and the mayor held their ground. When infections swelled as expected, thousands of sick residents were treated at home by a network of volunteer nurses.”
The result: In St. Louis, the death rate from the flu was only one-eighth of what it was in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s health director was temporarily popular for letting the parade go on, but history now regards that as a tragic and preventable mistake. St. Louis’ health commissioner came under political fire for what seemed draconian actions but wound up saving lives. These are not corona-influenced interpretations. They were the conclusions of two studies that came out in 2007, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Those studies looked at how 17 U.S. cities responded to the pandemic. The National Institutes of Health published this summary of the reports: “The first study found a clear correlation between the number of interventions applied and the resulting peak death rate seen. Perhaps more importantly, both studies showed that while interventions effectively mitigated the transmission of influenza virus in 1918, a critical factor in how much death rates were reduced was how soon the measures were put in place.” In layman’s terms, best to act quickly, as we’re now seeing many sports leagues and others do. (Shakespeare’s Macbeth understood this, too: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”)
“If St. Louis had waited another week or two, they might have fared the same as Philadelphia,” the NIH wrote in its summary. The city that actually responded best in 1918 was San Francisco, the studies said. Among the restrictions: Schools and theaters were closed. And for six weeks, everyone there was required to cover their mouth or nose in public. “The wearing of a mask immediately became of a symbol of wartime patriotism,” according to the Influenza Archive. Whether the masks really worked is debatable, but they got the point across. Alas, the NIH says San Francisco ended its restrictions too soon. The flu came back. “Had San Francisco left its controls in place continuously from September 1918 through May 1919,” the NIH says, “the city might have reduced deaths by more than 90 percent.”
Notice that all these were the actions of local officials, not state or federal ones. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson said nothing about the flu. Wartime censors did their best to discourage reporting about the pandemic, which only made things worse. Trump, whatever you think of him, is at least no Woodrow Wilson. The challenge for local officials is to be less like Philadelphia and more like St. Louis. The challenge for all of us is to wash our hands and do what we can to avoiding spreading disease of any kind.