A SovereignPH.com EXCLUSIVE

A survey of Covid-19 implications from an international perspective

by Adolfo Quizon Paglinawan

Chapter 5

Tale of two countries

On January 19, 2020 a man checked into an urgent care clinic north of Seattle, state of Washington, and sat in the waiting room.

The 35-year-old nonsmoker had experienced a cough and a fever for the previous four days. Twenty minutes later, he was taken to an examination room where he told the medical personnel he had returned from Wuhan, China, four days earlier.

A battery of tests for various illnesses came back negative. A test for Covid-19 came back positive.

On the same day (January 20 in South Korea), a woman, also 35, arrived at Incheon International Airport outside Seoul with a fever.

Like the man at the Seattle clinic, she had arrived from Wuhan, where she lived. She was taken to a hospital, where she also tested positive for Covid-19.

Ed Pilkington and Tom McCarthy reporting from the New York bureau of London’s The Guardian newspaper, believe that when the definitive history of the corona virus pandemic is written, the date January 19 is certain to feature prominently.

It was on that day that a 35-year-old man became the first person in the US to be diagnosed with the virus.”

Two days after the first diagnosis in Seattle, Donald Trump went on air on CNBC and bragged: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.”

A week after that, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion article by two former top health policy officials within the Trump administration under the headline “Act Now to Prevent an American Epidemic” – Luciana Borio and Scott Gottlieb laid out a menu of what had to be done instantly to avert a massive health disaster, on top of which was “work with private industry to develop an easy-to-use, rapid diagnostic test.”

It was not until more than a month after the Journal article and almost six weeks after the first case of corona virus was confirmed in the country that the Trump administration enforced the advice. Laboratories and hospitals would finally be allowed to conduct their own Covid-19 tests to speed up the process.

As of this writing, the US posted 180,789 cases over Italy’s 105,792 and China’s  81,518, making it the new epicenter of the pandemic. It’s death toll (3,580) is also now second to Italy (12,428) in terms of deaths, after overtaking China (3,305).

(The United States now has 770,564 cases; 70,799 recoveries and 41,114 deaths while Italy has 178,972 cases; 47,055 recoveries and 23,660 deaths; and China with 82,747 cases; 77,084 recoveries and 4,632 deaths. – Ed.)  

“The US response will be studied for generations as a textbook example of a disastrous, failed effort,” Ron Klain, who spearheaded the fight against Ebola in 2014, told a Georgetown university panel recently. “What’s happened in Washington DC has been a fiasco of incredible proportions.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the US government’s response to international disasters at USAID from 2013 to 2017, said the White House had all the information it needed by the end of January to act decisively. Instead, Trump repeatedly played down the severity of the threat, blaming China for what he called the “Chinese virus” and insisting falsely that his partial travel bans on China and Europe were all it would take to contain the crisis.

 “We didn’t use that time optimally, especially in the case of testing,” said William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University medical center. “We have been playing reluctant catch-up throughout.”

As Schaffner sees it, the stuttering provision of mass testing “put us behind the eight-ball” right at the start. “It did not permit us, and still doesn’t permit us, to define the extent of the virus in this country.”

Though the decision to allow private and state labs to provide testing has increased the flow of test kits, the US remained starkly behind South Korea.

South Korean response

The Guardian picks up, “in the two months since that fateful day the first case, the responses to corona virus displayed by the US and South Korea have been polar opposites. One country acted swiftly and aggressively to detect and isolate the virus, and by doing so has largely contained the crisis. The other country dithered and procrastinated, became mired in chaos and confusion, was distracted by the individual whims of its leader, and is now confronted by a health emergency of daunting proportions.”

Within a week of its first confirmed case, South Korea’s disease control agency had summoned 20 private companies to the medical equivalent of a war-planning summit and told them to develop a test for the virus at lightning speed.

A week after that, the first diagnostic test was approved and went into battle, identifying infected individuals who could then be quarantined to halt the advance of the disease.

South Korea has conducted more than five times as many tests per capita. That makes predicting where the next hotspot will pop up after New York and New Orleans almost impossible.

Despite not having a total lockdown, South Korea has had only 9,786 cases with 162 deaths, and after about half a million tests later, less than 100 new cases were being reported in a country of more than 50 million people, a sign that it was winning the war against Covid-19.

History repeating itself?

Quoting a historian, the Washington Post headlined: “Trump is ignoring the lessons of 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions.”

 “They [the Trump administration] are clearly trying to put the best possible gloss on things, and are trying to control information,” said John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History”.

When the second wave of Spanish flu hit globally, “there was outright censorship” in Europe, Barry said. “In the United States, they didn’t quite do that, but there was intense pressure not to say anything negative.”

The Washington Post phone interview continued – News about the war was carefully controlled by the Committee on Public Information, an independent federal agency whose architect, publicist Arthur Bullard, once said, “The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

The CPI released thousands of positive stories about the war effort, and newspapers often republished them verbatim. So when the Spanish flu spread across the United States in the fall of 1918, both the government and the media continued the same rosy strategy “to keep morale up.”

The historian said President Woodrow Wilson released no public statements. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.” Another top health official dismissed it as “ordinary influenza by another name.”

But it wasn’t, bewailed the Post. The Spanish flu had a mortality rate of 2 percent — much higher than seasonal influenza strains, and similar to some early estimates about the corona virus. It also differed in who it killed. Seasonal flu tends to be worst for the very young and very old. The Spanish flu was deadliest in young adults.

Soldiers crowded into military camps. A killer flu was raging. In 1918, U.S. officials ignored the crisis to fight a war.

Readers must view this video about 1918 swine flu or Spanish Flu and the role of World War I in spreading the disease among troops making it into a worldwide plague of devastating proportions. The historical documentary covers where it began, how and where it spread, the symptoms, how it affected America and how it could happen again. 

But media followed the government’s lead and self-censored dire news, Barry said, local officials in Philadelphia were planning the largest parade in the city’s history. “Basically doctors were telling reporters the parade shouldn’t happen. The reporters were writing the stories; editors were killing them,” he added. “The Philadelphia papers wouldn’t print anything about it.”

The Post narrated that just before the parade was held, about 300 (sic) returning soldiers started spreading the virus in the city and 48 hours later, Spanish flu slammed Philadelphia became one of the hardest hit areas of the country. The dead lay in their beds and on the streets for days; eventually, they were buried in mass graves. More than 12,500 residents died, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Barry said, “if a newspaper reported the truth, the government threatened it. The Jefferson County Union in Wisconsin warned about the seriousness of the flu and within days, an Army general began prosecution against the paper under a wartime sedition act, claiming it had ‘depressed morale’.”

As the pandemic raged through October of that year, Americans could see with their own eyes that the “absurd reassurances” coming from local and national officials weren’t true. This crisis of credibility led to wild rumors about bogus cures and unnecessary precautions, Barry said.

In the end, CDC admitted the Spanish flu claimed about 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 people in the United States. Notably, even President Wilson caught it, just as he was in the middle of negotiations to end the Great War.

“I think the No. 1 lesson that came out of the experience is that if you want to prevent panic, you tell the truth,” Barry said.

An emergency hospital in Kansas during the 1918 influenza epidemic/National Museum of Health and Medicine

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THE AUTHOR

Ado Paglinawan is a daily commentator at Radyo Pilipinas1, and a regular columnist at the newest daily news website SovereignPH.com and its partner magazine The Sovereign. He is a former Philippine diplomat, serving in the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York as press attaché, spokesman and special assistant to Ambassador Emmanuel N. Pelaez. He has served a strategic consultant to Agriculture Secretary Luisito Lorenzo, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon and Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo. He studied for 1 5 years at San Beda College from grade 1 to 4th year college majoring in English and Philosophy, minor in political science and history. He is a veteran of the First Quarter Storm, participating as president of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines. Ado has taken continuing studies in world politics and diplomacy, international public relations, information technology and remote sensing, Christian and Islamic studies in various universities in Washington DC.

(ia/SovereignPH.com)