COVID-19: Something New Under the Sun?

COVID-19: Something New Under the Sun?

A long since forgotten 1881 Conference suggests a mixed answer.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” says Ecclesiastes. (1:9) But are we meant to understand by this that roughly 2,980 years ago a king was having one of those desultory, downer days that come along from time to time, or are we supposed to take at face value the truth that really nothing genuinely new ever happens beyond the conceit of contemporaneity imagining that it does?

An answer is not immediately forthcoming just now, for we are living amid a peculiarly confusing on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand moment. On the one hand, the sudden realities of COVID-19 seem utterly strange and unprecedented. On the other, those who know some history possess a perspective suggesting otherwise.

COVID-19 life certainly seems novel to those who have never experienced anything like what we are going through now. That does not apply to most East Asians, who unfondly remember SARS from earlier in this still-young century. But Americans in their multitudes have not been thrown to the mat by fear of epidemic disease since the polio terror of the later 1940s and early-to-mid 1950s. And polio was different: that epidemic crept up on people, mainly children, over the course of years. It did not swoop down in a matter of weeks, did not foredoom the economy virtually overnight, or forebode any political or geopolitical impact at all.

We must go back to the Spanish Influenza visitation of 1918-20 to find anything even roughly comparable to COVID-19. If we do, we see both similarities and differences between then and now. The similarities reside mainly in human reactions, individual and social, to fear and challenge—and here we can consult observers’ records from Thucydides to Chaucer and Boccaccio for evidence of them. One stark example of a difference is that no one in 1918 expected, or got, a major Federal government response to the epidemic crisis. The Federal center had not yet metastasized on account of the Great Depression and World War II. President Wilson said close to nothing publicly about the epidemic. He left town for the duration, only returning to the White House when it was safe to do so.  

But if we go back another four decades, say to 1878-80, we find ourselves in quite a recognizable place, at least in some ways. Some may suppose that the current tension besetting nearly all political leaders, domestic and foreign—namely, how to balance the imperative to protect human life with the need to not enfeeble economic life more than necessary—is something new. But listen, as it were, to this:

At the outbreak of any alarm, or of any cause for alarm about the public health in any country or city, that is necessarily, for the moment, the predominant interest, and indeed more overpowering than any question of interest. But nations in regarding these matters must understand that there is a great continuing interest of intercourse and commerce which must not be lightly disturbed, and should be no more disparaged and no more interrupted than a reasonably solicitous attention to the preservation of public health should require.

It is this conflict and the adjustment of it—this conflict between the permanent, free, and open intercourse of trade. . . with this particular and pressing emergency of the public health, likely to appear at any time, at any port under the usual conditions of exposure [that we must grapple with].

Secretary of State William M. Evarts addressed these words on January 5, 1881 to those gathered at the State Department in Washington, in what is today the Eisenhower “Old” Executive Office Building at 1650 Pennsylvania Avenue, opening the Fifth International Sanitary Conference. (Fourteen such conferences were held in various world capitals between 1851 and 1938, the first one, at French initiative, in Paris.)

Evarts was speaking of the international economy during the heyday of the first era of globalization, not the domestic economies of individual countries, but the delegates in Washington from 21 countries knew the two were increasingly linked. That era, too, was shadowed by epidemic disease, and for reasons similar to those that explain why we are hosting the COVID-19 virus right now: technology, its discontents along with its utilities.  

Specifically, the rapid 19th century mechanization of agriculture was driving massive productivity increases and widening the scope of both commercial agriculture and international commodities exchange. The gathering steam revolution in shipbuilding enabled those international commodities exchanges to occur efficiently, and incentivized as well the mass movement of people both within and among countries. With the thickening and quickening of the metabolism of human interaction across borders came great waves of yellow fever and cholera moving across continents and then oceans.

With the restructuring of global agriculture and the great waves of immigration to American shores, the rise of urban factories further drove social change. New patterns of urban residency developed, and so did greater inequality too, at least for the historical moment. Nativist anti-immigration sentiment arose along with a new racism, as internal migration—including large numbers of African-Americans moving from South to North—within the United States burgeoned. Epidemic disease hitched a ride on both types of human movement. Every piece of this social and political puzzle was driven by technological innovation in one way or another, directly or indirectly. Sound familiar?

Much has changed, of course. Then, in 1880-81, ports were maritime, and movement slow. Today intricate air travel networks are what we care most about, both in terms of potential infection vectors and aids to economic vibrancy. Then, medicine was primitive compared to clinical and research capacities today, both within national boundaries and especially across them. And then, Republican administrations—of Rutherford B. Hayes, then briefly James Garfield, then Chester A.  Arthur—were leaders in organizing international cooperation to advance effective medical communication and inspection protocols to fight contagions. Today, alas…

Those trying to follow the COVID-19 epidemiological news have by default learned a great deal about how pandemics advance, and which means of coping seem most effective in particular local circumstances.  This, too, is nothing new. At the 1881 Conference, specialists addressed the assembled dignitaries, and one reminded the gathering:

To protect the people against the periodic attack of contagious disease, it is better to destroy the disease at its birth than try to stop it on its march. It is not sufficient to place in its way, at each of its stopping places, obstacles which cause obstruction to commerce, and often offer to the public health guarantees which are of no avail.

That lesson has never gotten old, though it has been irresponsibly ignored. Had then-Senator Bill Frist–the first medical doctor to hold a Senate seat in 68 years–been able to persuade the Bush Administration in 2005-6 to take seriously his proposal for an Expeditionary Medical Corps, designed to go quickly to the sources of pandemic outbreaks to aid nations at first peril, President Obama might not have had to use the military in 2013, for lack of any viable alternative, to fight what was feared to be a major Ebola outbreak. More important, we might have been vastly more effective in helping other nations deal with COVID-19 at early stages of the current pandemic, before it reached U.S. shores.

That marks another difference, arguably, between 1880 and 2020. It is unreasonable to have expected what were then called “the civilized nations of the world” to have managed to eradicate yellow fever, cholera, plague, influenza, and other major contagious diseases at their birthplaces. No amount of improved international cooperation could have been decisive against yellow fever and cholera. But 140 years later, COVID-19 was evitable, not inevitable, for reasons more basic than failure to innovate U.S. policy.

Local and then national authorities in China erred because political interests shoved aside what could have been early efficient public health reactions to the danger. The same thing, albeit in a different one-two punch manner, happened in the United States.

The polarization and virtual lack of thought of the American political class caused the underfunding over many years of the U.S. public health infrastructure, as with all other forms of infrastructure; and politics in an already electioneering White House proved the source of critical errors of judgment in the early days of the U.S. COVID-19 response. That was because even well short of wise policy innovation, emergency medical responses could and should have been practiced, pre-planned, and sheltered from political interference—just as other emergency responses with regard to continuity of government in a war crisis and major terror attacks and natural disasters are wisely sheltered from political distortion by prior agreement and arrangement. Donald Trump has made huge and deadly errors. But previous administrations failed to do what was necessary to prevent him from getting a chance to make such errors.

Politics existed in the United States in 1880-81, too, and so did specks of irrationality in the national beer foam. Few today recognize the name William M. Evarts. But he played important roles in his time. Initially a Whig, then a Republican supporter of William Seward, Evarts was the man who ended up moving at the 1860 Republican Convention the unanimous nomination of Abraham Lincoln for President.

Evarts was also Attorney General during the Andrew Johnson presidency, and it was Evarts, one of the most effective lawyers and orators of his era, who managed against the presumptive odds to get Johnson acquitted at his impeachment trial—yes, that same stuff happened back then, too.

Then, as Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes’s close adviser, he negotiated the Election Commission deal that resulted from the disputed Tilden-Hayes election of 1876. Hayes became President despite Tilden’s winning an absolute majority of the popular vote, and in return Reconstruction ended—and Jim Crow began.

So when Evarts addressed the International Sanitary Conference, he did so as one of the most prominent figures in American politics and diplomacy. When he finished, Evarts turned the proceedings over to Assistant Secretary of State John Hay to preside. That he did, with signal success. Hay was already prominent in his own right: he had been private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. About 17 years later he would become William McKinley and then Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State.

American political life, however, did not run as smooth in the moment as the slowly strengthening sinews of international functional cooperation in fighting pandemic disease. By the time the Proceedings of the Conference were collected, edited, and printed, in October 1881, James Garfield had taken the oath of office in March 1881, been shot by Charlies Guiteau—a quite mad disappointed office seeker—in July, and passed away in September. Garfield might well have survived, but his doctors mismanaged his medical care, and he died of infections they caused. Chester A. Arthur succeeded to the Presidency, and it fell to Evarts’s successor as Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, to deliver the Conference Proceedings to the 45th Congress, whose 1878 National Quarantine Act had authorized the Conference in the first place.

Withal, the Republic endured the mayhem, international cooperation against pandemic disease advanced, and the world working together with the aid of American leadership made progress against the spread of yellow fever and cholera. The United States thrived economically, as well, during the first globalization era, despite the often difficult disruptions of rapid change, a sharp but temporary surge in inequality, and the lingering shortcomings of a social order yet to live up in full to its own principles. Again, sound familiar?

That first globalization era ended abruptly in August 1914, in Europe, its collapse aptly punctuated by the Spanish Influenza calamity starting four years later.  Questionable political judgment at that time, too, made things far worse in the United States than they might have been. President Wilson was well aware of the disease but insisted that U.S. troops continue to flow to France to finish the battle, and then flow back home as soon as possible after they succeeded. Some 500,000-675,000 Americans died from the Spanish influenza, far more than died in combat, at a time when the U.S. population was less than a third of what it is today, and a huge percentage of the fatalities was the result of Wilson’s decisions. Even Donald Trump’s unquestionably poor judgment is unlikely to be responsible for that many deaths.

It took nearly half a century after the collapse of the first globalization era for its successor 20th century wave of globalization to arise in earnest. Will COVID-19 turn out to be the dour 21st century analogue to the World War? We don’t know yet, for the intersection of disease, technological innovation, human social nature, and politics does not come with a “how-to-assemble” an understanding guide. Pandemics are sometimes agents of great economic, social, and political change, as was the Black Death of the 14th century. Sometimes they aren’t, like the Spanish Flu of 1918-19.

So whatever COVID-19 brings, it will surely not be entirely new under the sun. To know that, however, requires studying what was under the sun in earlier times. How likely is that? Ecclesiastes, which is to say the realist King Solomon, long ago suggested an answer: “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” (1:11)

Post Datum: About seven months after the Proceedings of the International Sanitation Conference were printed and presented to Congress, Czar Alexander III promulgated the notorious May Laws, stimulating the emigration of significant numbers of Jews to the United States, Canada, and other countries. All four of my grandparents were among those immigrants to the United States, all four of whom, too, managed not to die in transit from yellow fever or cholera. No one can say for sure if or how much the Conference contributed to their safe passage, but I nevertheless wish to thank President Hayes, Secretary Evarts, Assistant Secretary Hay, and the members of the 45th Congress who voted for the National Quarantine Act of 1878 for their efforts on my behalf.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.