“The President was taken violently sick last Thursday. He had a fever of over 103 and profuse diarrhea … I was able to control the spasms of coughing but his condition looked very serious.”
This is from a letter in April 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson’s chief physician. Wilson had caught the Spanish flu, which was raging worldwide, while attending a World War I peace conference. Some American officials also died, but fortunately Wilson recovered and returned to the meetings. But it is debatable whether returning to the meetings was a good thing for the world. Wilson, his spirits down from fighting the disease, readily agreed to the harsh indemnities demanded of Germany which he had firmly opposed. The harsh peace imposed on Germany invited the rise of Adolf Hitler. You could say the Spanish flu brought about World War II.
Pandemics can also greatly change political maps, as in the plague that led to the decline of ancient Athens. We were surprised at last week’s news that U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been infected, but reports of cabinet-level officials in other countries getting infected have been steadily reported. It looks further VIP infections will be unavoidable.
Even the virus may be shocked by politicians who think they can use the pandemic to their political advantage. The state of emergency decreed in Hungary grants de facto unlimited extralegal authority to the government, prompting anxious voices from the E.U. There are similar actions taking place in other member states. Even the Chinese-American rivalry around the spread of the pandemic could be a matter of convenience for both governments. We hope that the politicians in countries that wish to lead humanity’s battle with the pandemic will seriously worry about how world history will describe them in 100 years.