How Previous Presidents Handled Pandemics

Our nation’s expectations of how well Presidents should handle epidemics and pandemics has increased over time.

1. Wilson and the flu pandemic of 1918-9. Wilson was so tied up first with the war and then with post war negotiations centered around the eventual Versailles Treaty and League of Nations that few expected him to do much about this flu pandemic. He himself contracted the flu while at Versailles but recovered. There were no federal policies at all at that time related to the flu pandemic. His only action, at the behest of his generals, was to stop troop transfers to and from Europe for a while to help contain the spread of the virus.
America felt it was on the cutting edge of dealing with issues like typhus and yellow fever; and, it was. But, the President was not expected to have any significant role in these matters.

2. Ike and polio This was a major issue at the time, but the President was again not expected to play much of a role. The development and distribution of the Salk vaccine in 1954 completely changed the nature of this terrible scourge. Ike’s appointed head of the brand new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was Olveta Culp Hobby and it was she who made the crucial decision to make Salk’s vaccine widely distributed.
I recall, and I imagine many of you reading this, also remember standing in line to receive the vaccination. In my case, I was in junior high and stood in line in our gymnasium to get it.

Hobby was forced to resign soon after her decision due to criticisms of not putting in place strong enough safety measures.

These days that would surely be a major scandal, but it wasn’t at the time. Her reputation soon recovered enough for Ike to ask her to consider running for President in 1960.
Now, there’s a what if!

3. Gerald Ford and the Spanish flu epidemic that never happened. I honestly didn’t remember this at all. Gerald Ford and the swine flu pandemic that never happened in 1976 is a reminder that government action can backfire. Ford became worried of reports that a severe flu outbreak had happened at Fort Dix among military recruits. So, he promptly put in place a vaccination protocol to nip it in the blood or face a reemergence of the 1918 Spanish flu. Around 40 million were vaccinated, BUT it was not necessary as the flu that was present turned out not to be fatal. Worse, around 500 had the nasty side effects of Guillian-Barre syndrome of whom thirty died.

But, this debacle paled in comparison to the impact of his courageous pardon of Richard Nixon and, worse, his statement in a debate with Carter claiming that Poland was not under Soviet domination really hurt him. I recall watching that.

4. It really wasn’t until Ronald Reagan was first elected that a President was seriously expected to deal with a pandemic, in this case, HIV/AIDS. He and his aides were severely criticized for a tardy response to that crisis. But, one must recall that their views accurately reflected the moral views of social conservatives especially including evangelicals as a significant part of his base that this pandemic was a just consequence of improper behaviors.

5. It is VERY IMPORTANT NOW to correct a common misperception about President Reagan that he was utterly opposed to homosexuality and was willing to just let HIV/AIDS victims die.

In 1978, a right wing state legislator in Reagan’s home state of California, John Briggs, pushed for a state ballot initiative named Proposition 6 to bar gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools sure that Reagan would support him and publicly pressed him to do so. And, Reagan’s own political handlers urged him to stay away from this issue.
But, in September, he told reporters and with a following op ed that he was opposed to this Proposition as it would do “real mischief”, and the Proposition lost by a wide margin.
He had gay friends, such as Rock Hudson.

While he was very reluctant as President to take any public stand on HIV/AIDS for the first part of his Presidency, he did so clearly and unequivocally at a response to a question in a press conference in September 1985. On Feb. 5, 1986, he made a surprise visit to the Department of Health and Human Services where he said, “One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS.” He also announced that he’d tasked Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a major report on the disease. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Reagan dragged Koop into AIDS policy, not the other way around. He followed up with a major address in 1987 supporting efforts to combat AIDS. He got support from Congress for financing this battle from 8$ million in 1981 to $26.5 in 1983 soon increased by Congress to $44 million and doubled that in 1984.

6. With the President’s support, it was his Surgeon General C. Everett Koop who came to the fore to speak out strongly about the need to aid those suffering from this dread disease. His cause was helped when it became apparent that there were those contracting this disease unawares. Koop strongly advocated for the necessity of sex education in the schools to teach about using condoms to protect them contracting this disease. Needless to say, that opened him up to public criticism from those conservative activists who had backed him for being appointed to his post. But, those criticisms soon faded and he has come to be regarded by many as the gold standard for what a surgeon general should do to educate the public.

7. Sadly, probably no case ever equaled in public impact in favor of empathy for those afflicted with HIV/AIDS than the sad, sad case of what happened to tennis great Arthur Ashe. Ashe had found out he contracted the disease while having a blood transfusion during heart surgery in 1988. He kept that a secret for three and a half years until he found out that his secret was going to be revealed to the public. He eventually died of pneumonia brought on as a complication of having that disease.

8. I know this is a bit of a diversion from our topic, but I feel President George H.W. Bush deserves great credit for advocating for the U.S. becoming an ADA environment which is generally regarded as the last major piece of civil rights legislation. Having traveled extensively, we are the gold standard in this field. THANK YOU President George H.W. Bush!!

9. Now we come to one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, humanitarian Presidents ever in terms of saving lives from potentially fatal diseases—George W. Bush. For details please see: The March 19, 2020 issue of The African Exponent’s article–
George W. Bush’s Initiative To Fight The HIV/AIDS Epidemic Has Saved Millions of Lives in Africa.

Since being launched in 2003, the global initiative against HIV/AIDS, PEPFAR, has achieved remarkable success, and has been hailed as the biggest single disease global health initiative in history.

And, the article is correct. I know, I know, he and his administration came under great criticism for their conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with subsequent humanitarian disasters. But, NOTHING should take away from this initiative of his. PLEASE read this article. It notes the quite different actions of Obama vis a vis Trump in continuing W’s work.

For Obama and Bush together in Africa see:

10. We now come to President Obama, the second great humanitarian of our Presidents. Given that his handling of the H1N1 crisis has been so heavily politicized and littered with false accusations, here’s the CDC’s official timeline of the H1N1 crisis:

A good rule of thumb to aid you would be that if you see stories that say he didn’t act until it was very late in the game with a declaration of National Emergency in October of 2009 that strongly suggests that those are partisan political attacks. Just consult the actual record as reported by the CDC and you’ll see he acted much sooner than that. When one considers that the eventual fatality rate was at 0.02% that was significantly lower than was expected. Let’s hope we do that well now, though projections right now are at around 1% which would bring a significantly higher fatality rate.

Let’s take a look at how Obama brought the spread of Ebola to a halt in West Africa. We know that well from our friends in Sierra Leone. Naturally, he faced nasty partisan attacks for his efforts here, but he stayed the course. Again, please consult the CDC timeline. It was President Obama who made the decision to have CDC coordinate the efforts to stop Ebola and it involved sending 3,500 medical personnel to the region to vastly improve their health system’s abilities to deal with this deadly disease:

11. It is early for a historian to say much about President Trump as his first term has not yet come to an end.  Still, the record shows that President Trump was consistent from the start of the coronavirus19 outbreak of minimizing the nature of the coronavirus crisis while stating that we were well prepared and/or it was under control, when in fact we weren’t well prepared nor was it under control. He frequently contradicted what was being said by his own health care professionals. He has recently changed his tune but has denied that he ever minimized the crisis let alone was contradicted by his own health care professionals though the recorded record is clear that he did and they did.

This timeline has been updated on March 17 to reflect his change in message. He has also made repeated false claims about Obama’s handling of the H1N1 crisis in order to deflect from his own culpability in this crisis. Until he changed, it appeared that he had been more willing to listen to Fox commentators like Hannity and radio personality Limbaugh than to his own health care professionals. Unhappily, he still goes public with disinformation but likely believes it.  This is balanced by how much he relies on a health care professional to provide sound medical advice publicly.

The latter good practice provides a good transition for, despite the issues noted above, the fact that he has made several verifiable good decisions such as early on ordering a ban of Chinese nationals coming to the U.S., ordering a national emergency later, and, ordering restrictions on those coming to the U.S. from Europe.  We must give credit where credit is due and not focus only on his shortcomings.

There has been a surge in public support for him recently which is fairly common early on for Presidents dealing with major crises. That support can have a short shelf life depending on how well the public perceives he is handling it.  Let’s see how this plays out.  As a nation, we need him to do well.