Wilson already had an internal crisis – a world war – to fear, which made the pandemic an afterthought.
“He had an OCD personality and was intensely focused on the war, period,” said Barry. “Nothing distracted him.”
At the time, there were no federal health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health. The government̵
Wilson’s government kept his illness a secret
Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis is an extraordinary development a month before a presidential election. He has refused guidance from experts on how to wear masks and hold socially distant events despite the virus killing more than 208,000 people nationwide.
Wilson wasn’t exactly a picture of health when he caught the flu at the age of 63. Prior to his illness, he had several health problems including asthma and stroke. He got the flu in Paris in 1919, where he negotiated the peace treaty several months after the war.
Wilson fell ill and coughed so hard that his doctor initially thought he had been poisoned in an assassination attempt. He was hallucinating that he was surrounded by spies. But his administration kept his illness a secret. Back then there was no TV or social media, so it wasn’t very exhausting.
“He thought the French were spying on him. He also believed he was personally responsible for things like all of the furniture (in his room),” said Barry. “If he wasn’t president, who was terminally ill in the middle of the peace conference, it might have been funny.”
The 1918 flu killed mostly young people
While the last century’s pandemic – it was often referred to as “Spanish flu” even though it was not from Spain – had some similarities with the coronavirus, there were some differences.
With the flu, people had terrible symptoms such as bleeding from the nose, mouth, eyes, and ears. The 1918 virus also mostly killed the young, which puzzled the researchers. The death rate was particularly high in people between the ages of 20 and 40 and in children under 5 years of age.
“About two-thirds of deaths were between 18 and 50 years old and the maximum age for death was 28 years,” said Barry. “Soldiers were, of course, in the age group that was the primary target. The US military training camps obviously had a high mortality rate.”
Fear overwhelmed the nation when people started turning on each other.
“Because they couldn’t trust what they were told, the real terror took hold of some people so much that society itself began to fray and each one became for himself,” added Barry. “This is different from most disasters, when people come together to help one another.”
Masks were also an issue at the time
That seems familiar to me. In 1918, health officials strongly recommended people wear face masks to stop the virus from spreading. They also issued guidelines on social distancing and encouraging people to practice proper hygiene.
But at the time, Americans who were not wearing masks made no political statement.
“Many people grumbled or even refused to wear masks, but they didn’t do it because of political or partisan affiliation,” said Alexander Navarro, assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan .
“Many elected officials, as well as public health officials, urged people to wear masks as part of their civic duty,” Navarro told CNN. “You tried to use that idea. If you couldn’t fight our guys overseas over there, you could do your part here on the home front.”
CNN’s Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman contributed to this report.