Our Recent Pandemic History Hurt Our Response to COVID-19

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been, if anything, far worse than President Trump on the coronavirus front. Keep hugging and kissing! Go to restaurants! Keep the economy going! But that’s finally changed:

As virus cases have begun surging, the president and his team have shifted their message radically in recent days, urging people to stay home and to practice physical distancing — and warning of dire results if that advice is ignored.

….“Don’t go out into the street unless it is for something absolutely necessary,” López Obrador told the nation in a sober YouTube address Friday evening from the northern border city of Tijuana. “We have to be in our homes. We have to maintain a safe distance.”

….An even more dire appraisal came late Saturday from Hugo López-Gatell, undersecretary of health and the president’s coronavirus point man. “This is the last chance we have. We can’t lose it,” López-Gatell said in a somber-toned news briefing. “We are saying to everyone: ‘Stay at home.’ … It’s the only way to reduce this virus.”

In the case of people like Trump and López Obrador, their unwillingness to face up to the danger of the coronavirus pandemic is probably rooted in their personality. Still, the truth is that virtually every country responded slowly and deficiently at first, unwilling to take the virus seriously when only two or three deaths had been recorded. But why? Surely they all knew that two or three deaths meant the virus was well established already and there was no chance it would simply die out on its own? Part of the answer might be rooted in recent history.

  • In 1976 the United States reacted almost instantly to a single case of swine flu that turned out to be . . . a single case of swine flu. The response was widely judged a fiasco after the fact.
  • In 2003 SARS broke out in Asia, producing panic around the world. In the end, only 8,000 people were infected and fewer than a thousand died.
  • In 2009 we had another outbreak of swine flu. It killed about 12,000 people in the US, less than a normal flu season.
  • In 2012 MERS broke out in the Middle East. It had a high mortality rate but turned out to be hard to get. The death toll since 2012 is still under a thousand.

In other words, there have been a lot of false alarms over the past few decades, and that probably contributed to an initial reluctance to take drastic measures based on inconclusive evidence. Remember that for all the uproar about how late the US responded, just about everyone else responded late too. Even the World Health Organization took until March 11—when there were already more than 100,000 confirmed cases—to declare COVID-19 a pandemic.

Sometimes a knowledge of history is helpful. Sometimes it’s the opposite. In the case of COVID-19, all the recent episodes of relatively limited pandemics produced a sense of wait-and-see that turned out to be deadly. In this case, history was not our friend.

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