The Two Pandemics

In 2020, a century after the previous pandemic, history repeats itself, says Carlos A. Montaner. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Carlos Alberto Montaner, 1 November 2020 — The Economist claims that Donald Trump will lose the November 3 election. They have even dedicated an editorial to explain why voters should favor Joe Biden. In my opinion, The Economist is the most prestigious popular news outlet in the world and reflects what the polls say. The great British liberal magazine, founded in 1843, is willing to bet its prestige supporting that statement. (Liberal, in the European sense of the term, that is, conservative on fiscal matters plus free markets –that’s why Marx and Lenin detested it– but very open on social issues, that’s why the conservatives rejected it).

At the beginning of April, the situation was different. From that moment, things began to go wrong for Trump. It wasn’t his nasty bragging. Nor was it his behavior as a bully, as a merciless thug against the physical limitations of his political adversaries, whether it was John McCain or Serge Kovaleski, an NYT journalist Trump made fun at by imitating his spastic movements in public. It was not, in short, his character which would have influenced his hypothetical defeat. The essential thing was the virus, Covid-19, and the havoc it caused in American society. No one can handle that. In democracies the social tendency is to make whoever is in power pay for the mistakes.

In 1918, perhaps in Kansas, the pandemic of the virus called by the aseptic and unsexy name of H1N1 began. Theoretically, it traveled from Europe with the first American soldiers returning after contributing to victory in World War I. In total, 675,000 infected by the virus died in the US and about 50 million in the whole world. As the 1920 census only counted 106 million people, barely a third of the 330 million that now populate the United States, we must think that the mortality of this influenza, wrongly named “Spanish,” was infinitely higher than that of the current coronavirus.

It was probably similar, although medical care today is better and there are antibiotics to treat bacterial infections that often arise after the attack of viruses. In any case, the conflicts were the same–there were people who refused to put on the face mask or to keep the so-called “social distancing.” Since the Middle Ages, it has been known that these two weapons, plus well-ventilated places, and body hygiene, were almost the only way to defend against epidemics.

When Trump predicts that one day the virus will magically disappear, he is not making it up, but observing what happened in 1920. After 15 terrible months, the H1N1 virus, helped by a fiery summer, vanished with relative ease, but back then aviation was in its infancy. Today it will not disappear until a high percentage of the population is vaccinated and antiviral cocktails are available and at affordable prices, as is the case with AIDS drugs.

I suspect that the H1N1 and Covid-19 political consequences will be very similar. In 1920 there were general elections in the United States. Although the country arrived late to the conflict, it left some 117,000 corpses in Europe (about a fifth of those taken by the pandemic). President Woodrow Wilson had to face the ruin brought by the pandemic and an insubordinate society that didn’t believe in the Head of State’s sagacity. Wilson had promised them that he would not allow himself to be dragged into the war by the bellicose Europeans and, in the end, attacks on the US merchant marine by German submarines, plus the well-known “Zimmermann telegram,” made him enter the war.

Wilson’s role as a winner in World War I was useless to him. The US Congress did not approve his famous “14 points,” nor was the country able to participate in the League of Nations. American society, perhaps fatigued by the pandemic and tired of the Democratic Party, elected Warren Harding, a Republican journalist from Ohio, as president. Harding took over a country that was near-bankrupt, but it soon recovered and gave way to the “roaring twenties.”

On that occasion, the Republicans had the greatest victory in history against the Democrats; they won the 1920 election by a margin of 26 points. Harding died of a heart attack in 1923, still in the presidency, leaving his Vice President and successor Calvin Coolidge at the helm. In 1928, the also Republican Herbert Hoover, an engineer, won the presidential election. Hoover was an excellent civil servant who was surprised by the “crash” of the Stock Market in 1929. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated him, and the cycle of the Democrats began.

In 2020, a century after the previous pandemic, history repeats itself, but the other way around–the virus annihilates Donald Trump and the Republicans. There is some poetic justice in that defeat.


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