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Spanish Flu, HIV, Ebola: How US Presidents Fighted Epidemics

The history of mankind is the history of epidemics. Compared to people who even lived 100 years ago, we are very knowledgeable, notes "Voice of America"... We know that there are some causative agents of the disease, the mechanisms of transmission of the disease, we know how the disease proceeds and - at least theoretically - how to cope with some of the diseases. And our recent ancestors did not know this.

Photo: Shutterstock

US presidents, like the heads of any other state, the most they could do was not too late to establish quarantine. And even that was very difficult, because in America the states, municipalities have a lot of power, and if the president intervenes in something that is the prerogative of the state, it is a terrible scandal. Also, the presidents could somehow help the victims. More was not expected from them.


A classic example - at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a “Spanish woman”. The President of the United States was then Woodrow Wilson - an intellectual, President of Princeton University, author of many books. Nobody expected that he would be able to somehow stop the Spanish flu epidemic, from which Americans were dying in terrible numbers. The army is faced with the fact that recruits and soldiers who live in barracks and perform service to combat the epidemic are beginning to die en masse from this flu. The American military generally contributed to the spread of the "Spanish flu", because they went to Europe on ships that made infection inevitable.

Wilson himself fell ill with the "Spanish flu" - this is also one of the factors of the epidemic that influenced international politics. He participated in an international conference in Paris following the results of the First World War and discussed the fate of the world, being ill, he signed the Peace of Versailles. They said that his thinking abilities had deteriorated greatly, due to illness he ceased to be the Wilson he was known before. And, apparently, he died from the consequences of the “Spanish flu”.

But at the same time they say that in 1918 Wilson never mentioned the “Spanish flu”, and newspapers in the Allied countries were forbidden to write in detail about this disease, because there was a war and this information could strengthen the enemy. Why is the virus that has spread around the world called the Spanish virus? Because the Spanish newspapers - a country that did not fight - wrote about it freely. Everyone decided that since the Spanish newspapers wrote about this so much, the virus appeared in Spain. In fact, it originated somewhere in Asia, probably China.

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Just as now we see a lot of advice on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, how not to get infected, then there was a lot of advice regarding the “Spanish flu”. New Yorkers were very conscientious: everyone, even the janitors, wore masks. There was even a public service advertisement that campaigned to wear masks and said, "It's better to look funny than to be dead."

It is interesting that by that time mankind had accumulated quite a lot of experience in fighting epidemics, but there was still no money. The same New York was a terribly dirty city - there were incredible slums, garbage on the streets, manure deposits, biological substances on which all kinds of bacteria thrive. People didn't know how to handle garbage. In the best case, huge barrels of carbolic acid appeared, with which they poured everything they could, believing that it could somehow help. But it didn't help much.

In addition, the Spanish flu was not the only killer of humanity in those days: tuberculosis raged, smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria continued. It is interesting that when in 1925 there was an outbreak of diphtheria in Alaska, serum had to be delivered to many settlements on dogs, one of these dogs even had a monument. But this is a case when some kind of vaccine and methods of treatment already existed. And in many cases, humanity did not know what it was facing.


But - fast forward a few decades.

In 1981, a bulletin from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US government's disease control organization, mentioned that 5 gay men, previously healthy young people, were strangely ill in Los Angeles. They have a terrible bouquet of the most exotic diseases, which demonstrates that they have problems with immunity. At the time of publication, two of the patients mentioned had died. It is believed that this is the very first mention of the beginning of the "plague of the twentieth century."

Subsequently, many studies were carried out, which showed that the virus originated somewhere in Africa, and cases of the disease of Americans, Europeans, South Americans were recorded earlier, just no one paid attention to them. A certain new threat arose, from which the gay community suffered mainly at that time. This epidemic was raging in Los Angeles and in New York. And since we are talking about how the presidents acted at different times during the epidemics, it is worth mentioning that when the epidemic erupted in New York, many blamed the presidential administrations acting then.

For example, historian Jonathan Soffer says that the main blame for this lay with the administrations of Presidents Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Reagan is usually called the main culprit, because his subordinates have repeatedly said that this is a "gay plague." Then there was no name yet and the disease was called that. Reagan was guided by a conservative electorate who saw gays as the offspring of something terrible. Reagan mentioned the presence of the epidemic in 1985 - that is, 4 years after the epidemic began. Subsequently, the appropriations for combating the epidemic were increased several thousand times, but, according to critics of the president, precious time was lost. When Reagan died, members of the gay community were very critical of him, because he was called the "gay killer." They did not try to save them, the state did not invade this area and did not use methods of fighting the epidemic, pretending that nothing was happening.

Once Reagan spoke and said that he deeply sympathizes with children who have been infected, but understands the discontent of parents of healthy children with whom such a child may end up in school. Although by that time it was known that HIV was not transmitted by household means and these children were safe for their peers. The President could not fail to know this, but he followed the traditional path, which was welcomed by conservative circles in America. Then the epidemic was at its initial stage and little was known about the virus - America was faced with many other diseases - tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases were on the rise. Therefore, it was not easy for the president to make the right decision. But the fact that he did not try to intervene in the process with the help of his moral and imperious authority, did not speak about it, played a certain role.

You can kindly mention President George W. Bush, who is not loved for much, but who has made huge sums of money to fight the epidemic on a global scale. Largely thanks to his efforts, the epidemic in the world was reduced. At the time of his reign, there were epidemics of SARS and swine flu.

What is expected of the president during a pandemic

There is a tale about how a shepherd shouted several times: “Wolves, wolves!”, People came running and saw that there were no wolves, and when the wolves actually came, people did not come running. This is how international medical organizations start shouting "Wolves!" Sometimes they are wrong, but you should never neglect their screams, because we do not know what it will result in. “Spaniard” seemed like a common flu, which everyone knows, but became the record holder for the number of deaths. It was modern, civilized humanity, the peak of scientific thought, the twentieth century - but everyone was unable to cope with the virus.

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How are presidents tested in an epidemic? Leadership and moral example are expected of them. If we turn to the first US President George Washington - the city of Washington did not exist, a small government was sitting in Philadelphia, where an epidemic of yellow fever, brought from the Caribbean, began. George Washington fled Philadelphia - and that was the end of it. Nobody expressed any complaints to him - but what could he do? He did not have to die heroically along with everyone, but had to rule the state. And he went down in history as the founder of the American state and the greatest president. And this episode was forgotten.

Donald Trump in 2014, when he was not yet president, accused Obama of reckless actions and “complete incompetence” on his Twitter: “This is a complete disaster - he could do something important, namely, interrupt flights with African countries.” And Obama sent the military there to help fight the Ebola epidemic. Obama's ratings were very low then, but he has repeatedly said that any crisis presents some new opportunities. And his team managed to prevent the outbreak of an epidemic in the United States, after which the ratings went up sharply.

Now the Democrats, who are fighting for the White House, reproach President Trump for responding inadequately to the most serious threat, and the President is proving that, on the contrary, his administration is doing everything right. Which of them is right, we will check on our own skin. Most importantly, wash your hands and be healthy!

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