COVID-19, Spanish Influenza, Trump and Woodrow Wilson

The election in 1920 turned the country from Democratic to Republican, and it is likely that the 2020 election will do the reverse.


I’m writing this on October 2, 2020, less than 20 hours after President Trump tweeted that he and his wife Melania tested positive for COVID-19.  Trump has been taken to Walter Reed Hospital for examination, isolation and treatment.  Both he and his wife already have mild symptoms from COVID-19.  “Social networks are rapidly flooding with posts wishing fervently for Mr. Trump’s death, and Facebook and Twitter have diverged sharply in how they are responding.”  In a poll taken today, “Republicans and Democrats’ top emotions vary dramatically. Republicans report being “sad” (55 percent) and “worried” (51 percent); Democrats are “indifferent” (41 percent) and “happy” (40 percent).”

It’s hard to imagine a historical situation in which a group of Americans would report that they were “happy” because the President was ill.  But our weird modern situation is obviously due to Trump’s bad handling of COVID-19.  When I first heard about his testing positive, my reaction was that this was the “Irony of Our Age.”  And, indeed, it is ironic that a president who has treated COVID-19 as being less than important has come down with the disease himself.

There was a situation back in 1918 similar to this one, and it involved the Spanish Influenza.   Up to that point in time, it was “[t]he deadliest  [pandemic] in history, it infected an estimated 500 million worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed as many 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.”    The epidemic began “on 5th March 1918 among the Chinese workers contracted at the Fort Riley military base in Funston, Kansas.”  The source may have been China or some other place, but despite its name, it did not start in Spain.  The first wave of the disease in the spring of 1918 affected many soldiers in World War I in Europe.

“Even with the number of sick and infected soldiers, President Wilson decided against his chief physician’s advice and sent in thousands of more soldiers on transport ships to the frontlines in France, which seemed to have resulted in the virus spreading across the world. This was not surprising, since troopships were crammed from stem to stern with soldiers, causing a spread of the illness among the troops. There’s nothing more crowded than a troopship; it’s just being jammed in there like sardines and if somebody has a respiratory disease, everybody’s going to get it. Looking at what happened from afar, Wilson’s decision resulted in the virus spreading across the world, from Kansas to the front lines and outward from there.”

The Spanish Flu situation was as ironic as COVID-19 has become.  Wilson’s decision helped spread the disease far and wide until, ultimately, he himself fell victim.  This was in April 1919, when Wilson was heavily involved in negotiations to end the war and bring peace to Europe.  When he returned from his sickbed, “Wilson wasn’t the same man. He tired easily and quickly lost focus and patience. He seemed paranoid, worried about being spied upon by housemaids. He achieved some of his specific goals [in the Versailles Treaty] but was unable or unwilling to articulate a broader vision for a better world.   In other words, he acted like a man with residual neurological problems stemming from a recent bout of Spanish flu . . . . Back in the U.S. that fall, Wilson suffered a major stroke just as opposition to the treaty by isolationist senators gained steam. He died four years later, his vision of a strong League of Nations hampered by the absence of his own country.”

Today, we are worried as to whether Trump will be able to remain in office or if he should be removed under the 25th Amendment of the Constitution.  That amendment did not exist in 1919, and Wilson, ill as he was, remained as President to the end of his term.

Today, there is much discussion of how the world will emerge finally from our pandemic.  It would be well to study what happened in 1920, 100 years in the past.  America became far different as a result of the war, the pandemic, and Prohibition.  Sometime in the next few years, we will emerge from our pandemic, and no one can predict right now what that will be like.  But there is every chance that Trump (who is age 74 and obese) may die.  His vice-president has tested negative for the disease, but with a major election only a month away, the future is difficult to predict.  The election in 1920 turned the country from Democratic to Republican, and it is likely that the 2020 election will do the reverse.

We shall see.


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