Sometime overnight, this country passed a grim milestone: More than 250,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19.
Although this is nowhere near the death toll from the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, which claimed an estimated 675,000 lives in an America one-third as populous as today, this coronavirus pandemic is the most profound health tragedy of my lifetime. And although effective vaccines have been developed in record time, an estimated 50 million people around the world are already infected, 20% of them in the United States. In other words, people are still dying, here and around the world. As I write these words, thousands of Americans are in hospitals fighting for their lives. Partisan bickering by politicians and the press over the logistical and moral challenges posed by this crisis is not merely unseemly, it's obscene.
So who can we look to in the present crisis? The answer, as it was in 1918, is this: the health care professionals on the front lines.
Fearing it would erode morale among the troops during World War I, Woodrow Wilson never publicly discussed the influenza epidemic that raged on his watch -- even though the disease took 12 times as many American lives as were lost in combat in Europe during Wilson's presidency. But throughout U.S. history, a critical mass of Americans on the front lines of a crisis have shown that they don't need to wait for a president to tell them what to do. They tackle the task ahead, no matter how difficult or dangerous.
That was certainly the case at the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia in 1918. Here is the testimony of Dr. Mary Buchanan, clinical professor of ophthalmology at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, who wrote her recollections in June 1919:
"The scarcity of doctors and the dearth of nurses threw an awful burden on those left in civil life. The acts of heroism of some of our women doctors will never be known, but the devotion to duty while those nearest and dearest to them were dying and dead, too far away for them to reach them, was worthy of an epic I am unable to write. Even as her poor tired heart seemed as if it could not stand the added strain of the death of two dear brothers the same day of the dread plague, one brave doctor said she would be willing to die if she were able to save the mother of eight children who had aborted and had pneumonia. Fortunately, her own life did not pay the penalty and the children were not orphans. Another lost a brother, and his bride came and demanded work in the hospital to help forget. Another whose fiancé was one of the first victims, pitched right in to save hundreds of patients when the entire medical staff was laid low."
Dr. Buchanan's account was carried in the monthly bulletin published by the hospital in June 1919. Another entry, by an unknown author in the December 1918 bulletin, was a paean to the selfless work of volunteers. "We believe the successful resistance to the infection shown by the majority of our nurses to be due to the kindly offices of the [local] Red Cross and other friends who sent automobiles each night to give the tired nurses and students an hour of fresh air without exertion," it noted.
This entry continued:
"The ambulance, the elevator, the laundry, with all its complicated machinery, were run by women previously untrained to the task. A YWCA secretary became the good right hand of the dietician. Ladies untrained in hospital detail displayed equal willingness and capacity in washing dishes and in bathing babies; an expert bookkeeper helped to keep the records up-to-date; young medical students became our most relied-upon night nurses; laboratory physicians became practitioners of medicine for the period of the emergency; probationer nurses, hardly twenty-four hours old in the profession, worked most dependably throughout the trying days; and women who had never been called upon for hard work did a full day's hard labor day after day."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.