Government and Media Responses to Pandemics, Then and Now

The H1N1 virus (colloquially known as swine flu) was "first detected in April of 2009 in the United States, and spread quickly around the world," despite the virus being of Mexican origin, as we later discovered.  The Obama administration had declared it a "public health emergency" in late April, and by June, the World Health Organization declared it the "first flu pandemic in 40 years."

It wasn't until October of 2009, though, that Obama personally recognized it as a national emergency with the "potential to overburden health care resources in some localities."  By that time, over one thousand Americans had died from it.  The CDC estimates that between 151,700 and 575,400 people died worldwide from H1N1 virus infection in the first year that it circulated.  These were not typically older patients with pre-existing infirmities who were being killed by the infections, either.  Unlike the seasonal flu, the H1N1 almost exclusively affected children and adults under 65.  It was quite easily transmitted from person to person, too, passed "by exposure to infected droplets expelled by coughing or sneezing that can be inhaled, or that can contaminate hands or surfaces."

In the end, over 60 million Americans were infected by H1N1.  It led to 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the U.S. alone.

Yet Americans generally just went about their lives, with no holistic directives from President Obama or any of the state governors that schools, restaurants, or businesses be closed, or that private gatherings should be limited to a particular size.  One can hardly remember it even being news at all, and if one does, it is remembered as casual warnings to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and stay away from work and others if you feel ill.

It was such a small part of the news, in fact, that one thousand Americans had died, in the first pandemic in 40 years, before Barack Obama was even moved to personally mention it to the public, to say nothing of his being moved to endlessly contemplate sweeping efforts that would grind the economy to a halt and stop Americans' lives in their tracks. 

Now, I know I'm not supposed to be observing any of this, because it could be construed as downplaying the current threat posed by the coronavirus.  Millions of armchair scientists, with newly conferred degrees awarded by MSNBC and CNN, are showing up everywhere to say this is a definitely a national health care crisis worthy of crippling the economy and that all schools and businesses must all be closed or canceled for the greater public good, even if there are no nearby incidences of infection. 

As evidence, they'll suggest that we need to take the most drastic measures possible to "flatten the curve," which is a phrase they just learned exists a few days ago, but it's one they must believe adds scientific credibility when liberally peppered into the discussion, based on how many times I've seen and heard it.  These armchair scientists might go on to say this new virus is also extra-dangerous because it's "airborne."  That's not technically accurate, but we might point out that it's "airborne" in the same way that swine flu is, in that the virus can be carried a short distance in droplets emitted by a cough or sneeze and cause infection through inhalation. 

But this virus is also extra-deadly, they'll say, with a fatality rate ranging from 1–3% or greater, though we have no way of determining it with any certainty today.  After the frightening initial reports of a 3-plus-percent fatality rate, the latest reports suggest a fatality rate of 1.4% — and that's in Wuhan, where the virus originated.  However, The New York Times posits that for every known case of coronavirus, "there are five to 10 people in the community with undetected infections."  As of Tuesday morning, the Times also reports that 4,482 cases are confirmed in the U.S., and 86 patients with the virus have died.  (Not to beat a dead horse, but, again, more than ten times that number had died as a result of H1N1 before Obama even personally recognized the pandemic.)  Assuming the lowest number of undetected cases suggested by the Times, that puts the potential number of infections in America at an estimated 22,410, and 44,820 at the high end.  I understand that more will unfortunately die among the infected, but with regard to current fatalities among that estimated number of infections, the rate of death is somewhere between 0.19% and 0.38%.  And, again, unlike H1N1, the virus generally plucking not the young and healthy, but the very old and unhealthy. 

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not suggesting that the coronavirus is unremarkable, and I certainly don't mean to make light of a serious pandemic.  I understand the goal of "flattening the curve," so as to not overwhelm America's health care capacity.  But if you're a relatively healthy American who, like most other Americans, doesn't know anybody who knows anyone else who has become infected by the coronavirus, but is still unable to go to work to make money for rent, or you're watching your 401(k) drop like a rock, or you're carefully rationing every square of toilet paper while in quarantine, that all might seem like pretty thin gruel.  

Perhaps that's for the simple fact that no living American has ever seen any comparable public hysteria over a health crisis or witnessed such a comprehensive shutdown of human life, interaction, and economic activity as we are witnessing right now. 

But it's all worth it, the familiar argument by big-government proponents goes, because, by closing every school, crippling the economy, and generally grinding Americans life to a halt in response to this crisis, lives will be saved.  If we don't do those things, countless people will die.

Stop me if you've heard this variation of that same rhetorical posturing: "If we allow the government to take away every American's AR-15, lives with be saved.  If we don't, countless people will die." 

The beauty of this tried-and-true flimflammery is that it makes an emotional appeal while requiring no proof or specificity on the part of the person making the claim.  Regarding the coronavirus, if the spread of the disease begins to slow, they can say it's due to the government's painful impositions upon Americans.  Inversely, if the rate of infection dramatically rises to any degree, and the number of deaths also increases to any number, that person can still self-righteously claim the moral high ground, insisting that even more would have been infected and died if we hadn't allowed the government to make such painful impositions upon our lives.

Let's apply this same logic differently.  How many of the thousands of Americans who died from H1N1 could have been saved if the media had orchestrated a national panic, on scale befitting the first flu pandemic in 40 years, crippling the economy and paralyzing commerce?  How many of those lives could have been saved if the state governors had suspended schools statewide, closed bars and restaurants, and ordered de facto quarantines in the early weeks of the pandemic?  And if they refused to do these life-saving things, why didn't President Obama save countless lives by doing so with executive actions?

We shouldn't blame the Obama administration for H1N1 deaths, because that's ridiculous.  But the media and Democrats (apologies for the redundancy) are certainly eager to blame Trump for the deaths caused by the coronavirus, and for the economic fallout that has resulted largely from the media-driven hysteria and state government actions.  Apparently, Trump's just not doing enough, says Molly Jong-Fast, editor-at-large for The Daily Beast, tweeting: "So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn't know how to president at all?"

But all of this does require us to ask some very simple questions.  If all of the hysteria generated by the media, and all of economic pain that local governments are inflicting right now, is so incredibly necessary in order to "save lives," then why wasn't all of this done when millions of Americans were infected, hundreds of thousands were hospitalized, and thousands were dying from a novel and deadly virus back when Obama was president?  And where were the calls for President Obama to usurp the states' authority by implementing top-down, one-size-fits-all edicts that would not only be arguably unconstitutional and unpopular, but quarantine millions of healthy Americans and cripple the economy? 

Perhaps we didn't see or hear any of that because it was Barack Obama, and not President Donald J. Trump, in office back then.  And perhaps the sanctimonious herd now telling us we must not only accept, but demand that the government enforce de facto quarantines and cripple the economy in order to "save lives" aren't really as humanitarian as they would have you believe.

If you experience technical problems, please write to