Leadership, Science and Public Health; there is a right way

Lately I have been reading a great deal about the last great pandemic – the Spanish Flu – because I do not remember ever learning about it in school. Here I am, a middle school Civics instructor, teaching my students about “Civic Virtue” and “Civic Duty,” being unaware of an illness that took the lives of over a half million Americans.

I was stunned to read that in addition to there being almost no mention of the enormity of the deaths, police forces all wearing face masks like the are donning today, and the illness spreading unchecked, that our leaders were ill-equipped to handle the situation. President Woodrow Wilson, who’s prescience lead to the League of Nations after World War I, and the United Nations thereafter, got sick with the Spanish Flu during the negotiations to end “the War to end all wars.” Perhaps due to his contracting this potentially lethal disease, he caved to the French and English demands, leading the the onerous terms put on Germany, which in part, lead to the rise of Hitler, Nazism and World War II.

We currently have at our helm a President who has never served in the military, whose family has not shown any inclination toward Civic Duty, Civic Virtue or putting in significant time for public service. There was an outstanding piece in the New Yorker magazine about President Wilson’s response to the Pandemic. I think the author got it right:

For now, it seems hard to judge which presents the greater record of Presidential failure during a pandemic: Wilson’s silence or Trump’s bombast, self-contradiction, and self-promotion. It may be partly just bad luck that the two worst pandemics to strike the United States in the past hundred years coincide with the terms of two Presidents so plainly unprepared for their responsibilities. Yet it bears reflection that, even a century ago, as is so obvious today, the country requires a President at least as knowledgeable about and committed to sound science and public health as to diplomacy and national defense.

This last line, like Malcom Gladwell’s excellent coverage of the Spanish Flu pandemic, lead me to recall an excellent article from almost exactly a month ago in the Washington Post (3/15/2020, p.A-12), titled “Erratic Messaging dulls the most powerful weapon officials have: public trust.”  Despite the Trump administration’s hostility towards public safety, science and its practitioners, the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) has a 450 page manual on what to do. In the Washington Post piece, it is noted that,

The fundamental principles behind good public health communication are almost stunningly simple:

  • Be consistent.

  • Be accurate.

  • Don’t withhold vital information, the CDC manual says.

  • And above all, don’t let anyone on to the podium without the preparation, knowledge and discipline to deliver vital health messages.

Experts point to the importance of conveying important, scary information with empathy but not unrealistic expectations. Clearly, the present administration is ill-equipped for the task. What our people in power need to do, according to John Hopkins University students who have been studying the CDC Manual and the White House response to the pandemic:

  • Tell Americans, “We made mistakes. Here’s how we’re going to fix them.”
  • Stop pretending testing is fine. Explain what solutions are underway.
  • And, as written on the cover of the CDC manual:
    • Be first.
    • Be right.
    • Be credible.