We know from the historical literature, starting with Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1721) right up to historical accounts of the great 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic, including John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004), that societies (including their governments) have a hard time accepting the reality of pandemics, especially at the beginning. The pattern of denial and confusion, followed by initially inept government measures, is nearly universal. So, anyone who is trying to think about the COVID-19 pandemic, frame it in a generous historical context, and not just react in predictable ways, wants to give the Trump administration and the national government more generally some benefit of the doubt.

What has happened to the global economy may have been predictable, but it nevertheless caught almost everyone on earth by surprise. So many people had drunk the Kool-Aid of thinkers like Israeli intellectual historian Yuval Harari, who in Homo Deus (2017) assured us that like war, famine and the plague was becoming a phenomenon of the past. It was so last millennium! The world epidemiological infrastructure, Harari assured us, was now so clever and sophisticated that it can stomp on Ebola and other infectious diseases before they can really build up a head of steam.

Who would have thought, last Thanksgiving, that by early summer 2020, almost 40 million Americans would be out of work (closing in on 20 percent of the workforce), and tens of millions of people uncertain that they will still be employed come Labor Day? Who could have predicted that the NCAA basketball tournament, known as March Madness, would be canceled or the summer Olympics or that the Republican and Democratic national conventions would be hanging by a thread with Memorial Day behind us?

Once you start looking for predictions of what has happened, you discover that they were out there, but as usual we weren’t listening. Remember that in the spring and summer of 2001, former U.S. Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman warned us that a dramatic terrorist attack was imminent, and we had better take emergency steps to prepare for it. These were not a couple of retired busybodies dreaming up conspiracies in a coffee shop. Senators Rudman and Hart headed up an official U.S. Government Commission on National Security. They presented their grave findings to the George W. Bush administration. They were thanked politely and ignored.

Meanwhile, the country and the media were fixated that summer on the sex life of former California congressman Gary Condit and the whereabouts of one of his interns, Chandra Levy, who disappeared in May 2001 and whose body was found one year later in Rock Creek Park in the District of Columbia. While we wallowed in the salacious details of the extramarital affair between a 53-year-old congressman and a 23-year-old staffer, Osama bin Laden was putting finishing touches on the greatest terrorist attack of our time. The American people have a short and myopic attention span. We have trouble focusing on the graver dynamics of the world, particularly the world beyond our shorelines. 

If you want predictions of the current situation, examine Lawrence Wright’s just-published novel The End of October, written well before COVID-19. Wright not only envisions a global pandemic of much greater virulence than the one we are enduring, but explains in great and accurate detail how the world health-care system responds and the social order disintegrates. Or listen to the Cassandra-like warnings of Microsoft’s CEO Bill Gates, who has used his immense wealth and privilege to become an expert on world health. He told the world to prepare for just this sort of pandemic in a now-infamous TED talk in 2015.

But now that the coronavirus has our attention — more than 100,000 dead in the United States alone, if the numbers are accurate, with nearly 2 million infected — we cannot afford to lose our focus if we want to return to something like normal American life anytime soon. You have to choose one of two ways of looking at this: either COVID-19 is just out there and is going to have its way with us and eventually run its course, so all we can do meanwhile is save the economy and bury the dead, which is how most people in history have endured floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, economic depressions, tsunamis, invasions, and epidemics; or there are things that a rational civilization can do to limit the havoc and we need to do as many of them as we can while still preserving social services and enough of the economy so that the civilization doesn’t descend into the land of Lord of the Flies.

When the American economy collapsed in 1929, President Herbert Hoover chose the former course, partly because of his political party’s ideology. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promised to do whatever it took to fix things, won the presidential election of 1932. This drove the right nuts (some to this day). It is true that FDR threw an alphabet soup of programs, initiatives and projects at the Great Depression, not all of which were effective, but the American people appreciated that he sought to save lives, put people back to work and to preserve a measure of dignity for even the poorest and least-advantaged Americans. FDR’s famous optimism, his reassuring fireside chats on the radio, his careful assurance that we would get through this together, helped save the country. Because of that, the people rewarded him (in spite of the things that went wrong in the New Deal) with three more presidential terms. FDR now routinely ranks as one of the top five presidents in American history, along with his more hectic fifth cousin Theodore. At no point did FDR say, don’t worry about the Depression, it will just go away magically one of these days. At no point did he call it a hoax.

If we want to come at this crisis from a generous historical perspective, if we want to avoid the blame game, give every politician the benefit of the doubt (or at least a measure of it), we should try to save the recrimination for later in the decade. Just imagine what it must be like to have been the mayor of a city, the governor of a state, or the president of the United States on Dec. 31, 2019, and now on June 1, 2020 — the sheer number of disruptions, faltering businesses, unemployment claims, closures, and imponderables all crowding in at once, with a radically shrinking state revenue base and a terrified and bewildered public demanding help — or just reliable information. A year ago, what governor thought she or he would spend whole days calling factories in China or Indonesia to try to buy masks, any masks, for health-care workers? 

How can any rational person not find it upsetting that the United States has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, although we rank third in population numbers and the first two, China and India, have dramatically fewer cases and deaths (overall and per capita) even though they each have at least triple our population? How can the United States, the wealthiest and most technologically sophisticated country on earth, be doing so poorly with testing, which is the very basis, the essential prerequisite, of a return to normal social and economic life? Who does not understand that if we wanted every American to have weekly access to reliable tests, America could certainly accomplish that? And even if you admire President Trump and trust his leadership in general terms, who can say that his response to the pandemic has been clear, rational, consistent, scientifically based, and trustworthy? Can anyone really defend the president’s suggestion that injections of disinfectant might cure or prevent the disease, or that ingesting hydroxychloroquine can help ward off the virus? Can anyone really believe that the Columbia University study that shows that we could probably have prevented the deaths of thousands of Americans had we acted sooner and with greater consistency is worthless because “Columbia is a liberal, disgraceful institution . . . because all the people that they cater to were . . . after me.” Can anyone really defend the president’s use of the White House pandemic briefings to talk about his ratings on Facebook or television, or the tweets in which he urges people to defy the shelter-in-place orders of their elected officials (LIBERATE MICHIGAN!, LIBERATE MINNESOTA!)? What president since Andrew Jackson has urged the people to defy legitimately elected government at the state and local level?

If we agree to avoid the blame game, can we at least agree to assign some responsibility for the confusion of America’s response to the pandemic, not all of it on the current president, of course? How did it happen that the richest nation on earth, with its scores of world-class research universities, think tanks, schools of epidemiology, and our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can have mounted such a weak and inept response to the coronavirus pandemic? Don’t you expect more of America than this? One thing is certain. So far from being the “shining city on a hill,” the United States has performed so poorly that none of the other first world countries is looking to us for best practices in 2020.

Four months into this crisis, the president and tens of millions of Americans seem still to lack a basic understanding of how a pandemic works. As the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it recently, the pandemic does not go away just because people are tired of being stuck at home. We haven’t even gotten on top of the first wave of the coronavirus, with second and probably third waves still to come, and yet people are rushing back into the public square as if the flood waters had receded (time to do the clean-up), thus ensuring that the number of cases and deaths will climb to catastrophic numbers again. Millions of people seem not to understand that if we have in some limited way “dodged the bullet,” and not seen our urban hospitals simply collapse, there are plenty more in the chamber. Millions don’t seem to understand that the reason to wear a mask is not so much to protect oneself, but to protect everyone else one comes into contact with. Thus, wearing a mask is not a sign of weakness or a “willing loss of liberty,” but rather a simple public health gesture of respect for others, like blowing one’s nose and covering one’s mouth when you sneeze. Millions seem not to understand that the disease is mostly spread by people who do not at the moment have visible symptoms of COVID-19, but are nevertheless carrying the infection either asymptomatically or while it is still in its gestation phase. If you feel OK that does not mean you are disease-free and no threat to the wider public. Millions of people seem to believe (or at least say they do) that the national lockdown is a plot by liberals and Democrats and the “deep state” to destroy the economy so that President Trump is not re-elected in November.

To believe that could be true, when the disease has no capacity to discriminate between red and blue, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, is little short of insane. You have to really spite your face to cut off the nose (and maybe the heart and head) of the American economy just because you don’t like this president. But millions use that talking point, and others of equal absurdity. And then there are the millions of the anti-vaccine movement who argue that vaccines are nothing but a dangerous ploy by big pharma to bilk the American people and create attendant maladies, including autism. 

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” A friend of mine, a prominent American historian, asked me the other day if I thought Jefferson would wear a mask? We cannot know for sure, of course, but my guess is that he would regard this crisis as a threat to human health, not to human liberty. Jefferson would be disposed to lean on the wisdom of such scientists as Benjamin Rush, Joseph Priestley, David Rittenhouse, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Jenner, the British physician who pioneered the true smallpox vaccine. None of them would say, go ahead and mingle indiscriminately. Or echo Tucker Carlson: “Who elected these scientists, anyway?”

Four months into our national crisis, millions of people refuse to believe there was ever a crisis worth attending to. They were either always in denial about the seriousness of this global pandemic or they are now in denial about its continued threat to American and world civilization. Articles are now being published suggesting that the American way of life, with its intense individualism, rejection of authority, and love of unalloyed liberty, explains why we have done so poorly thus far in the COVID-19 crisis. “Don’t tread on me” is our de facto national motto. Even if this consoling analysis were true, that ethos does not do well in a pandemic, where a coordinated national response and a high level of citizen compliance are necessary to slow the spread of the disease until the vaccines are developed and distributed.

We all seem to agree that we do not want to model our national response on South Korea or China, but how about Germany or Austria or Canada, where the basic rights and liberties principles prevail, and people are not herded into compliance by armed enforcers? What is the purpose of having a nonpartisan and nonprofit institution like the CDC, which exists at enormous expense for the sole purpose of guiding us through moments like this, and then to defy its relatively modest strictures? How am I more free in refusing to take the advice of those I pay to protect me against the spread of infectious disease?

We know that in the Great Influenza of 1918 the second wave was much worse than the first in part because millions of people refused to take it seriously enough and take responsible measures to prevent the second wave from overwhelming the world. The histories tell us, too, that millions of people in 1918 refused to wear masks to protect themselves and others, because it was inconvenient, because they believed it could not happen to them, because they didn’t want to be told what to do.

That was then. We know almost infinitely more today about infectious diseases than we did then, and if we will bother to consult the historical literature, we can learn from the mistakes our ancestors made in their response to the Spanish Flu.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates talks about specialization and expertise. Here’s a paraphrase. If you want your horse shod, do you go to a poet or a blacksmith? If you want a drinking vessel do you go to a circus trainer or a potter? If you want an insurance policy, do you go to a real estate mogul or an actuarial? Western civilization progressed to the brink of Yuval Harari’s techno-utopia by investing, over hundreds of years, in the science of epidemiology, disease control, virology, public sanitation, hygiene, and biological research. We should have been better prepared for this.

Now that we are in it, we need clear, consistent, truthful, and scientifically grounded leadership at every level of American society. The politics of COVID-19 are nearly as toxic as the disease, more toxic for the long-term impact on our economy and social structure. There can be no excuse for obfuscation, denial, scapegoating, or conspiracy theories from behind any official podium, public or private. We need all the expertise we can muster to get out of this crisis alive. If our leaders will not tell us to listen to the experts, how can we expect to maximize the number of people who take this catastrophe seriously, so we can get back to regular order sooner rather than later?

If you want to solve this historically unprecedented set of problems, do you go to an epidemiologist or a politician facing re-election?


For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour.