Are We Living in 1918?
by CAPT Russell Shilling, USN(ret)
Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic, as we are now breaking daily records for new cases of COVID-19, has gone entirely off the rails. He is spreading misinformation and advocating policies which will potentially cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. While on active-duty, I was a research psychologist who led medical research into pandemic planning and response. Based on what I learned, we really need to examine the ongoing strategy that led us to this economic and national security calamity, and examine the eerie similarities to the 1918 pandemic.
Many of us had hoped that Trump’s experience surviving COVID-19 would give him the insight and wisdom needed to heed experts and improve his response to the pandemic. After all, his life was saved by scientists and he caught the virus by failing to heed the recommendations of experts, culminating in the super-spreader event that occurred at the Rose Garden and across White House staff. Our hopes were misplaced. He is now espousing a pseudoscientific herd immunity plan which will cause pandemic casualties to soar and severely cripple our economy and national security.
The failure of leadership spans across the policy spectrum. Trump has terminated our participation and sponsorship for the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has defeated smallpox and is on the verge of defeating polio, yet we have slammed the door on them during our biggest health crisis in over a century. On the campaign trail this week, Trump is demonizing scientists and calling our top experts like Dr Fauci, “idiots”. His pandemic response reached it’s ludicrous peak with the administration’s recently paused $250M Health and Human Services (HHS) contract to “defeat despair and inspire hope” which is nothing more than a last-ditch propaganda effort by the President to gain support and spread more falsehoods before the election. Some within HHS are calling this investment a “boondoggle” which is taking funds from initiatives which would reduce the death toll.
These actions are part of Trump’s self-professed cynical efforts to minimize the severity of the pandemic while spreading false cures and de-legitimizing the nation’s top experts who actually saved his life.
History is repeating itself. Trump’s COVID-19 playbook seems to have come directly from Woodrow Wilson’s response to the 1918 pandemic. Wilson also sought to downplay and suppress information about the pandemic and, like Trump, paid the price by falling victim to that which he sought to minimize. And, like the Trump administration, the government hid the President’s true status from the American people. In particular, I researched the 1918 influenza outbreak and examined what the implications of a similar deadly infectious disease would be in modern day America.
One thing I discovered was that the negative impact of the 1918 influenza was augmented by the authoritarian approach taken by the Wilson administration. The latter passed the Sedition Act right after the flu’s first appearance, which some believe was at a US military barrack in Kansas in March 1918. The Sedition Act made it illegal to say anything that could be construed as insulting the government, an obvious affront to free speech. The administration utilized the new law to suppress open discussion about WWI and the pandemic, blocking much needed news coverage and information. Many reporters who violated the Sedition Act were prosecuted. Other governments followed suit in hiding cases and censoring information. The result? 50 million people died worldwide, 675,000 in the United States. More than the toll of the war itself. Experts note that the media censorship in 1918 was responsible for far more fatalities; an ill-informed populace was unable to adequately battle the deadly disease.
The biggest lesson we can learn from 1918 is that when governments suppress and distort information, people die.
Trump has taken a similarly authoritarian approach. As was the case in 1918, he has spread baseless information, co-opted the CDC’s recommendations to minimize severity, put a stranglehold on those with accurate information, and has suggested that less testing is the way to cure the pandemic; all of which have borne disastrous consequences. Over 220,000 Americans are dead, and we are not even near the end — numbers are predicted to soar, even double, in the coming months. Instead of launching a factually based information campaign which could prevent further outbreaks, contagion, and death, the administration is farming out millions of dollars to hire celebrities to downplay the dangers we face, spit out Hallmark greeting card messages, and try to convince the American public that everything is great and that it’s time to go back to work.
The irony is that if decreasing despair and getting people back to work really are the administration’s goals, a PSA campaign is the wrong strategy. Accessible mental healthcare and government subsidized child care would be far more effective.
If the US government is going to launch a PR campaign, the purpose should be to convince people to wear masks, social distance, and most importantly, to vaccinate.
In the latest USAToday/Suffolk poll two-thirds of respondents said they would not take a COVID vaccine when it is first released because of fears it would be rushed and not properly tested. Nearly one quarter of respondents said they would never take it. This would make it impossible to achieve herd immunity, which is our only hope of life going back to normal. Compounding that, data from the CDC tells us that less than half of adults took the flu vaccine in 2019. We cannot win this fight with those statistics.
COVID was not a surprise. We have known since 1918 that the possibility of another deadly infectious disease was a possibility. This is why the Obama/Biden Administration established a 69-page pandemic action plan, one that explicitly listed COVID viruses as a threat. The Trump administration negligently ignored this plan and furthermore, dissolved the office responsible for pandemic response. As a result, we lost precious months, saw thousands die needlessly, and our economy was crippled.
We need Presidential leadership that will solve this crisis and set in place a plan to prevent this type of catastrophe in the future. We need a president whose priority is to take care of the American people, not his own ratings.
Given his long history of supporting and developing evidence-based policies, we can be confident that former Vice President Joe Biden will heed our nation’s top scientists and other experts, and re-establish a comprehensive plan to prevent a repeat catastrophe. His administration would also prioritize the transparent communication of accurate information to the American people. We are 100 years past 1918. Our society, our healthcare, and our ability to share information have progressed immeasurably, and the Trump administration’s repeat of a failed strategy from a century ago is inexcusable. We need to vote in November like our lives depend on it — because they do.
Russell Shilling, Ph.D. is a retired Navy Captain and Aerospace Experimental Psychologist who managed medical and educational research programs at the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). After military retirement he was the Executive Director of STEM Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education and continues to advocate for innovations in education and medical R&D.