America’s President, arguably the most powerful man on earth today, has contracted coronavirus. He is now hospitalized in a critical state, throwing up a whole lot of uncertainties about US national security, upcoming elections and transfer of power. Trump is now part of the coronavirus data, one CNN analyst noted over the weekend, the very data he had been ignoring or disparaging depending on political timing.
The closest historical parallel to presidential-level nonchalance to a deadly virus is from a century ago, when US President Woodrow Wilson was infected in a pandemic dubbed as the Spanish Flu back in 1919. Just as Trump didn't take the virus seriously, Wilson had chosen to stay silent over the pandemic’s devastation. Just as Trump was intent on saving the economy, Wilson was keen to save the World War 1 effort.
And just as Trump fell to the virus so close to an important event, his re-election, Wilson was compromised right before negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in Paris in 1919. Historians note that Wilson had wanted to go soft on post-war Germany so that it could chart its own course, but the infection in Paris drained his stamina and affected his judgment. In the end, the disease forced Wilson to cave to French and British demands of subjecting Germany to strict reparations terms and territorial concessions.
While there is disagreement over how much role Treaty of Versailles had in fueling German nationalism, Hitler’s rise and eventually German occupation of Europe in WWII, there is consensus that the Treaty sowed the seeds of disenchantment. In a way, that pandemic changed history. And the current pandemic, which was already proving consequential, is impacting a major event, the November election in America, on which commentators have warned rests the future of American democracy and global peace.
With Trump in the hospital, after likely having a role in spreading the virus to over a 100 people in five different states, there is a new spotlight on how the world’s greatest power and leading democracy has handled the calamity. Back in April when Boris Johnson was hospitalized due to Covid-19, the world was losing its calm, amid a surging virus in most parts of the world back then. Now, after US handling of the virus had been mocked and pitied around the world, an indisposed president is being watched in horror.
Count the virus out, but do so at your own peril. The Covid-count in Pakistan remains at a manageable level, but a spike in winters cannot be ruled out. And yet, the dominant discourse is about settling past political scores, fanning communal hatred, or cheering/doubting a nascent economic recovery. What lessons have been learnt at the top? Where are the assessments of economic toll and social damage? What is the contingency planning for winters? Do better than this, for coronavirus is still the master.