Although the ultimate origin of the “Spanish flu” of 1918-20 is still heavily debated, the first known documented case was in the state of Kansas in the United States.
The ensuing pandemic, which raged between 1918 and 1920, went on to leave 50 million dead and infected one-third of the world’s population.
Fort Riley, a military base in Kansas, recorded the first known infection among soldiers preparing to head to Europe to join the Allied powers in World War I.
While it’s unlikely that the “Spanish flu” originated in Spain, scientists are still unsure of its source.
Because wartime censorship prevented newspapers from reporting about it in their own countries, they wrote stories about the flu’s ravages in neutral Spain－thus the name Spanish flu as far as is known, and US president Woodrow Wilson at the time never said one word about the flu nor took any steps to limit its spread. Should the US have paid reparations to the victims around the world?
In recent weeks, many US politicians and commentators say China owes other countries compensation for the damage done by the COVID-19 virus. I’ve hesitated to write about this for fear of giving legitimacy to a ridiculous idea that has little chance of becoming the actual policy of the US government. But, I do think it is important to realize that this notion violates every historical norm and will make a mockery of the rule of law. It also ignores basic tenets of how leaders make decisions in times of crisis.
The state of Missouri has filed a lawsuit against China in US federal court, alleging that China did not do enough to stop the spread of the virus at the outset. At first blush, this seems serious, but anybody can file lawsuits in the US. The case is highly unlikely to be allowed to proceed since US law generally does not allow suits against sovereign nations. I’m confident it’s just a publicity stunt.
Some writers and politicians have even suggested that the US government should seize Chinese assets in the US to cover virus-related costs. This idea is mostly just empty rhetoric. There is basically no chance that it could become law. But even talking about these threats raises big questions about the reliability of US financial and legal institutions.
The so-called long arm of US law, which turns the financial system into an instrument of foreign policy, is already threatening the legitimacy and trust of foreigners in US institutions. But even a serious discussion of seizing Chinese assets would be the last straw. Who would ever again put assets in US banks, companies or government bonds?
China has loaned the US more than $1 trillion by buying treasury bonds. Does anyone seriously believe it would be legal or moral for the US government to decide not to pay back these debts? For 50 years, the US government has increasingly borrowed to finance its debt－and substantially from foreigners. The quickest way to bankrupt the US government would be to do anything that even hints at not honoring these obligations.
Many fans of American football are “armchair quarterbacks”－people who sit in their chairs watching television and criticizing mistakes made by the players, usually after the fact. (A quarterback is the player who decides what tactics his team will use during each play.)
Much of the US press and many politicians are the worst kinds of armchair quarterbacks. They criticize decisions made in January based on information not available until April. Some of these attacks are simply mistaken or based on no evidence, but many are intentional, malicious and politically motivated.
Of course, with 20-20 hindsight, armchair quarterbacks claim that some decisions should have been taken earlier. This is a stupid view－if we could see the future, we would all make better decisions. But no one can see the future.
According to China Global Television Network, famous Chinese respiratory expert and epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan concluded in a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease that the epidemic would have grown three times as fast and furious if the Chinese government had quarantined Wuhan just five days later. He also said that acting five days earlier would have cut the size of the epidemic. But, Zhong’s study is based on information available in March, not in January. It is simply incredible that any government anywhere could have decided to close down an economy based on what was known in mid-January.
The theory of decision-making provides insights into the dilemmas that officials face when confronted with a potentially catastrophic but highly uncertain event. Historian and nuclear strategist Roberta Wohlstetter’s 1962 book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, about the Dec 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet, introduced the concept of the “cost of responding to ambiguous warning”. She found that there were, of course, plenty of warning signals that a Japanese attack might be underway on the morning of Dec 7. But, there had been lots of warning signals on many occasions in the preceding years.
After the attack, it was possible to go back and find warning signs that might have given leaders the information they needed to save lives and ships. Leaders were blamed for not spotting or acting on this information. But Wohlstetter showed that they acted responsibly given the real warnings they had and the cost of acting too rashly. National leaders constantly receive reports warning of many kinds of dangers－most of which do not come to fruition. It would be irresponsible and unsustainable to take very costly steps in response to each alarm bell.
The Chinese government took unprecedented steps to limit the spread of the virus and, in my view, did so astonishingly fast. No one had ever before taken the huge and costly decision to quarantine a large city and heavily populated province before, based on information that was inherently ambiguous. This step saved many lives in China and abroad. Plus, it signaled to the rest of the world the need to take the situation very seriously. This led other world leaders to also act expeditiously on the information available to them at the time.
It’s time to stop listening to the armchair quarterbacks and the pundits shouting empty accusations. The economic and healthcare problems caused by the virus are far from over. The world will be a much better place if nations can work together to solve the real, ongoing problems.
The author is a senior China Daily staff commentator.