On Wednesday night, President Biden will address a joint session of Congress on his plans to support the nation’s recovery from the devastating coronavirus pandemic. The human cost of the pandemic — more than 572,000 American and more than 3 million global deaths — will probably be foregrounded in the speech.
While such an approach would reflect Biden’s promise to bring empathy back to politics, it would also be a noticeable departure from the speech President Woodrow Wilson delivered a century ago during another deadly pandemic — when he made no mention of the devastating impact of the epidemic. The contrast in presidential addresses is reflective of the changing expectations of the political system and the very different contexts in which these two epidemics affected the United States and the world.
Wilson spoke to Congress on Dec. 2, 1918, three weeks after World War I ended and three months after the deadly influenza epidemic began spreading in the United States. Since September of that year, the entire country had experienced spikes in the number of cases and rapid increases in deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Although the public health response varied widely, most of the U.S. population encountered some combination of restrictions on assemblies, school closings, prohibitions on church services and, in a fraction of cities and states, requirements to wear masks in public.
The scale of death was staggering. From October 1918 to March 1919, there were an estimated 675,000 deaths from influenza and pneumonia — nearly six times the number of deaths from these same causes over the same period just one year earlier. In Washington, where members of Congress crowded into the House chamber to hear the president speak, the 2,000 deaths from pneumonia and influenza recorded in October and November added up to more than 30 times the total from these causes for the same months in 1917.
And yet, Wilson made no mention of the lives lost to the epidemic. Instead, the president spoke to Congress about the war, pursuing economic recovery at home and securing international peace.