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Stagger and recover

The American way of fighting viruses

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If the United States were a football team, our opponent would score two touchdowns before our players were even paying attention—but we’d claw back into the game during the second quarter and win going away in the second half.

That’s the way World War II went. That’s how the Space Race with the Soviet Union went in the 1960s, supply side economics went in the 1980s, and the War on Terror went in 2001 and 2002. And that’s the way the coronavirus war is likely to go in 2020 and 2021.

We staggered at first with mixed signals from politicians and pundits. Historical precedents—the underestimation of influenza in 1918, the overestimation of Swine Flu in 1976—tugged reactions both ways. With all the mistakes leaders made, overall they did better than their 1918 predecessors.

Then, some refusals to face reality were extreme. On Sept. 28, 1918, Philadelphia officials refused to cancel a parade that drew 200,000 spectators, many of whom contracted “the Spanish flu”—and 12,000 Philadelphians died of it in October. On Oct. 1 The New York Times supportively quoted the city’s health commissioner, Royal Copeland, saying the pandemic “has been checked.” Not so: the disease killed 30,000 New Yorkers.

President Donald Trump fumbled the ball at first but later recovered. Overall, he’s done better than President Woodrow Wilson did 102 years ago. On Oct. 7, 1918, World War I only had one more month to go. The German army was collapsing and its politicians were sending out peace feelers. Dr. Cary Grayson, a Navy admiral who was Wilson’s personal physician, pleaded with Wilson and Army chief of staff Peyton March: Don’t send more U.S. troops to Europe on ships that were becoming floating caskets.

Here’s one deck-level account from a Col. Gibson: “The ship was packed … the influenza could breed and multiply with extraordinary swiftness … groans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of the applicants clamoring for treatment and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme.” Blood from hemorrhaging patients made the decks slippery. Every few minutes another soldier died.

General March later acknowledged that Wilson in his White House office on Oct. 7 indicated a desire to stop the troop shipments, but March said they should continue. He wrote that Wilson (who was more comfortable dealing with abstractions than with human beings) gazed out the window, sighed, and let the death boats keep going.

What makes America great are private initiatives with public ramifications.

That was top-down management, but what makes America great are private initiatives with public ramifications. Here at WORLD, we’ve reported daily on “creative coronavirus help” including zoos and farms and famous buildings giving free online tours, the Metropolitan Opera streaming performances for free, illustrators and children’s book authors webcasting free lessons and read-alouds, alcohol and addiction recovery groups building online presences, drive-in movie theaters doing good business, landlords flexing on rent collections, restaurants converting to drive-throughs, publishers offering free e-books, and so on.

A duty to protect

Some Christians have said things like: Let’s continue to meet. God will protect us. Here’s what John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (book 1, chapter 17): “For he who has set the limits to our life has at the same time entrusted to us its care. He has provided means and helps to preserve it. … Thus if the Lord has committed to us the protection of our life, our duty is to protect it; if he offers helps, to use them; if he forewarns us of dangers, not to plunge headlong; if he makes remedies available, not to neglect them.”

What’s the practical application? One Sunday in 1862 pastor and soldier Robert L. Dabney preached a sermon on God’s “special providence,” noting that in a recent battle “every shot and shell and bullet was directed by the God of battles.” Not much later Dabney found himself under fire and took cover behind a large gate post. A nearby officer kidded him: “If the God of battles directs every shot, why do you want to put a gate-post between you and a special providence?” Dabney replied, “Just here the gate-post is the special providence.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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