BIDLACK | Nero-like Trump goes golfing as the next pandemic approaches

Author: Hal Bidlack - May 18, 2018 - Updated: May 18, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

Yesterday, May 17, was a special day in my family. My late mother, Melva Sparks Bidlack, was born on that day, a century ago. We lost her to cancer in the 1990s, but like most dutiful sons, I still miss her, and I find it almost hard to believe that she’d be 100 today. She was born on a farm in remote Clio, Iowa. That long-ago May would also see the birth of perhaps America’s greatest mind, physicist Richard Feynman. The year would end with great hope, when the War to End All Wars concluded on Nov. 11.

My Mom grew up in poverty but would work her way to college – a feat of considerable merit for a rural woman in that day – where she would meet her future husband of 50 years, my dad Russell. All that started a century ago.

And so one cannot help but wonder about the thoughts going through my grandparents’ minds as they gazed upon their first-born child, and wondered about what they wished for that tiny baby. We’ll never know, but I suspect we can be sure of one thought that may well have dominated and worried their thinking – the flu.

A century ago, nationally and in Colorado, people thought about the flu very differently than we do today. In our modern world, the flu is, for most of us, an irritant and an inconvenience. We hate being sick, and roughly half of us get flu shots (the rest are foolish – but that must await another column), and in our advanced industrialized homeland the flu usually only kills the sick and the aged – sad, but not especially terrifying.

But imagine the fear that swept Colorado and the U.S. when on March 4, 1918, the first known case of Spanish Flu felled a soldier at Camp Fuston, Kansas.  That flu was already a global pandemic, with the first known arrival of the very dangerous H1N1 strain. It infected half a billion people globally and killed roughly 100 million people – including 600,000 Americans – roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. In today’s more crowded globe, that would work out to more than the current population of the United States.

My paternal grandfather told me of the fear that visited their Iowa farm that year, roughly 200 miles north of where my newborn mom lived. When a family member got the flu, the hired hand refused to approach the house to get paid. My grandfather had to put the money out front and then retreat into the house. The money was then collected, apparently imbued with some anti-flu magic rendering it safe.

In Colorado, Sept. 27 saw the first death from the flu, a DU student named Blanche Kennedy, who presumably brought the strain from Chicago to Colorado on a train. Within 2 weeks, nearly 1,500 people were sick in Denver and people were dying. Restrictions were placed on streetcars and stores were required to close early. Oddly, outdoor funerals were banned, as officials thought that large groups of people attending such an event would surely spread the flu faster. Fear rose and set with the Sun.

So why am I telling you all this? Well, first, I miss my Mom and want to honor her on the centennial of her birth. But I also want to put forward a cautionary tale. During his campaign for the White House, Mr. Trump repeatedly tweeted that, in the face of a growing Ebola crisis in Africa, the U.S. should cut off overseas response efforts. He even called for an American evangelical doctor, who had become infected while trying to help, to be barred from returning to the U.S. for treatment. Said Mr. Trump: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!” I guess he never heard of compassionate conservativism.

President Trump has proposed cuts to the Public Health Service and has left the U.S. less safe and less prepared for the next pandemic. If you think it can’t happen again, please recall the fear in my grandparents’ eyes way back in 1918, when they held their new daughter. Nero didn’t actually fiddle while Rome burned, but Mr. Trump does appear to be golfing while the next pandemic approaches. Oh, and did you catch the small news story that Ebola has popped up again in Africa. Airplanes travel much farther and faster than trains. History teaches us lessons, but only if we are willing to hear those distant voices from the past.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.