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Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States during World War I that killed fewer than the “Spanish Flu”. His presidency was marked by war and a pandemic that killed millions in the United States as well as in Europe, were American troops were deployed around the world. When he went to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles, he too fell ill, contracting the “Spanish Influenza”. His ability to negotiate the treaty may have been compromised from the mental and physical symptoms that he experienced. His presidency is a historic bookmark for both war and the most important pandemic recorded in history.
International affairs link us through our alliances, our treaties, as well as our pandemics. Viruses spread without any respect to national borders or racial distinctions. The pandemic in 2020 can be better understood by looking back to the political context in 1918 when President Wilson was president. The lack of transparency and informed communication about the “Spanish Flue” as well as the lack of a coordinated public health policy drastically affected citizen’s health outcomes. Even the president’s physical abilities were compromised in an important historic treaty negotiation. Americans and Europeans were traveling back and forth between the Old World and the New World one hundred years ago just like today. The war enhanced the spread of the virus as soldiers were stationed throughout the world and brought the “Spanish Flu” with them when they returned home to East Coast ports. But the flu was first detected in Fort Riley Kansas where soldiers were receiving military training. As the first break-out was not heeded as important in the Spring, it was able to come back the next Fall in full force.
My generation has no memory of either World War I or World War II. But I am blessed to have a connection to my Great Grandfather Carl Wilson and his lineage, that linked me to his epoch. I share his family ‘memoire’ or memory. His generation was confronted with both war and a pandemic. Now, in 2020 with the corona virus, we too face a pandemic. Analysing the political response in 1918 or lack of response, as well as regional healthcare outcomes, provides us with an important historic reference that can help us make better public health decisions today. Woodrow Wilson’s management of the “Spanish Flu” provides needed insight in these difficult times.
Leadership is crucial when there are great political changes or pandemics. When the Berlin Wall fell, the Western World needed responsible coordinated leadership to assure a peaceful transition. Today, the pandemic is calling us to respond wisely, using history as a teacher. This global situation is forcing us to slow down, ground planes, and focus on what is essential. As we are asked by our governments to “home in” working and schooling from our homes, a cultural shift is being initiated. Our political leaders are giving healthcare an important place in their political discourses. It is possible, that by giving value to a culture of care, a transformed way of living in/on Earthship will be enkindled. Forced to consider our lifestyles differently, we may together discover new ways to relate, produce, and consider the most vulnerable in our society. As I teach “Cultural Epidemiology” in the medical anthropology department at Creighton University, I am convinced that informed healthcare policy can make a difference in the spread of the corona virus. May President Wilson’s presidency provide insight, informing us and inspiring us to do better.
Here is a link to a website about President Wilson and the historic context in relation to the “Spanish Flu”: https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/
Here is an article about the historic context of 1918 and how it affected President Wilson.
This article allows us to learn from what happened in 1918:
This article shows how the second and third wave of the Spanish flu were extremely deadly, providing knowledge of the progression of the pandemic:
This interview explains how demographic groups suffer differently depending on public health policies that are enforced in different regions:
Here are the invitations that my Great Grandfather Carl Wilson received from President Woodrow Wilson. They hang in the entry hall of our chalet, reminding me of that historic period and our transgenerational connections.