Trump’s misleading coronavirus statements could lead to pandemic killing millions, historian says

John M Barry warns White House is ‘trying to put the best possible gloss on things’

Samuel Lovett
Monday 02 March 2020 20:13
Last Week Tonight host John Oliver addresses Donald Trump's contradiction to the coronavirus case

A historian has warned that the Trump administration is hiding the true scale of America’s coronavirus outbreak and, in doing so, failing to heed the lessons of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide.

John M Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, has drawn similarities between the US government’s handling of Spanish flu and its current approach to coronavirus, otherwise known as Covid-19.

Writing in the Washington Post, Mr Barry said: “They [the Trump administration] are clearly trying to put the best possible gloss on things, and are trying to control information.”

When the influenza pandemic devastated the global population in 1918, “there was outright censorship” in Europe, the historian said. “In the United States, they didn’t quite do that, but there was intense pressure not to say anything negative.”

At the time, president Woodrow Wilson released no public statements regarding Spanish flu while the US surgeon general, Rupert Blue, said: “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.” Another top health official, Mr Barry said, dismissed it as “ordinary influenza by another name.”


But the 1918 strain of influenza was far more deadly and had a mortality rate of two percent – much higher than seasonal flu, and similar to some early estimates for Covid-19, which, to date, has infected more than 80,000 people across the globe and killed close to 3,000 people.

It also differed in who it killed. Seasonal flu tends to be worst for infants and the very old, whereas the Spanish influenza was deadliest among young adults.

The Wilson administration’s campaign of disinformation and suppression – which saw newspapers threatened by the government for publishing the truth – carried grave repercussions for the country.

Mr Barry pointed to the example of Philadelphia, where local newspapers refused to print any stories detailing the true threat of the pathogen. Given the absence of information within the public sphere, a large-scale parade was subsequently held throughout the city, which helped spread the flu. More than 12,500 residents subsequently died, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Two men advocating the use of flu masks in Paris during the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1919

The 1918 pandemic ultimately killed about 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I think the No 1 lesson that came out of the experience is that if you want to prevent panic, you tell the truth,” Mr Barry said.

Although he said the current government US was not “outright lying”, he warned that it was “definitely giving you interpretations that seem to be the best-case scenarios”.

Mr Barry expressed particular concern regarding Donald Trump’s decision to hand Mike Pence responsibility for leading the response to Covid-19, instead of a health expert.

The historian, who has contributed directly to US policy-making as a result of his research, is one of a number of high-profile figures to criticise the Trump administration for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The president has been notably attacked for sending mixed messages about the growing public health crisis.

Before a White House press conference on Saturday, he repeatedly dismissed the issue and, echoing allies in the conservative media, accused his political opponents of overstating the threat in attempts to weaken his leadership.

“The Democrats are politicising the coronavirus,” Mr Trump said. “They’re politicising it. One of my people came up to me and said: ‘Mr President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.’ That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax.

“This is their new hoax.”

On Saturday, the president then repeatedly praised what he called “the most aggressive action in modern history to confront this disease” and rebuffed criticism of his initial dismissals amid a rise in confirmed cases across the US.

When asked in the wake of the country’s first reported death if he regretted his language, Mr Trump said his use of the word ‘hoax’ referred to “the action [Democrats] tried to take to try to pin this on somebody because we’ve done such a good job”. He added: “The hoax is on them.”

America’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has not been without controversy.

In San Antonio, one patient who was mistakenly released by the CDC from the Texas Center for Infectious Disease later returned a positive Covid-19 reading.

“The fact that the CDC allowed the public to be exposed to a patient with a positive COVID-19 reading is unacceptable,” Ron Nirenberg, mayor of San Antonio, said on Twitter.

The US Department of Health and Human Services also confirmed over the weekend that it is investigating a manufacturing defect in some initial coronavirus test kits that prompted some states to seek emergency approval to use their own test kits.

Former vice president Joe Biden meanwhile accused Mr Trump and his administration of being unprepared for the outbreak.

“We knew this was coming ... back as far as January,” the current Democratic presidential hopeful said on Sunday. “They didn’t even begin to prepare the testing kits. ... That is kind of elementary.”

The US has so far counted 88 cases of coronavirus and two deaths, both men with existing health problems who had been hospitalised in Washington state.

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