Dawning of a Plague

Hello, it’s Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. President Trump got himself impeached again, and in record time: one week between the commission of offense, indictment, and a vote in the House of Representatives. Wednesday was notable in another way, too: For the second time this month, U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 4,000 in a single day. Despite the presence of a vaccine, January is set to be the deadliest month yet. Nearly 40,000 Americans have died 14 days into 2021. The worldwide total during the past year has now surpassed 2 million souls.

Viruses are a formidable adversary for humans, even if we’re doing everything right. That was not the case with this contagion. The institutions tasked with protecting us failed to do so, lapses exacerbated by dishonest, dysfunctional politics.

One year ago today, the World Health Organization tweeted, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus.”

This was untrue. It was a lie in service of a coverup. China’s government was so intent on hiding the burgeoning health crisis that authorities had arrested and threatened a Wuhan Central Hospital physician who tried to warn the outside world about the lethal contagion.

Coincidentally, also a year ago today, I focused my morning newsletter on a Jan. 14 milestone in the fight against the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic, which was far more lethal than the new coronavirus we’re dealing with — or anything else. “Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century,” John M. Barry, author of the most definitive book on the pandemic, wrote in 2004. “It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years.”

In the ensuing century, I noted on Jan. 14, 2020 (not knowing anything of COVID-19), science learned a great deal about the spread of such pathogens. We learned much, in fact, between 1918, when it was hard to get people to postpone parades, and this date in 1920, when a single official at the Chicago State Hospital — a person who had had no contact with patients — contracted the flu, resulting in the entire facility being quarantined.

I added this:

But the astonishing death toll of the pandemic was not primarily because poor medical practices were followed. It was because the strain of that virus, which was brought back from extinction in 2005 for study, was at least 100 times more lethal than typical flu viruses.

This should give us pause. Influenza pandemics have spread through the world three times since then (in 1957, 1968, and 2009) with nothing like the 1918 death rate. But if it happened before, it can happen again.

At the time, I didn’t know what the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was beginning to learn — despite Chinese stonewalling — about the lethal respiratory illness coming out of Wuhan. I certainly had no inkling of the hellish year that was unfolding. I was aware impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump were going forward. After having held onto the articles of impeachment without explanation for nearly a month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the Democrats’ impeachment managers a year ago today.

Now it’s déjà vu all over again — the difference being that this time we have a coronavirus vaccine and a new president-elect.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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