It’s Saturday, April 4, 2020.
On this day 179 years ago, William Henry Harrison – the ninth President of the United States – died.
One month earlier, he delivered a two-hour-and-40-minute inaugural address on a raw, rainy day.
The 68-year-old wanted to show his vitality at an age that most Americans of the time failed to reach. He ditched the tophat and coat for his mammoth oration.
Somehow, he caught a cold.
For a long time, people – led by his doctor – said he developed pneumonia as a result.
But a terrific New York Times article from six years ago revealed that the problem might not have been the obviously dumb idea of dressing light on a lousy day and talking for 160 minutes.
Instead, it might have been the fact the water supply for the White House was tainted by sewage dumped in a marsh nearby. And that was coupled with the questionable treatments of 19th century medicine, including a steady dose of opium and frequent enemas.
So Tippecanoe’s real cause of death might well have been typhoid or some other disease related to bad water.
Here it is, 2020, and the good news is we appear to have solved – at least in the United States and the developed world – the water hygiene problem.
Clearly, however, not the novel virus problem.
I’m now 66 years old. With the encouragement of government and business, I’ve spent much of my life preparing.
Preparing for a nuclear attack.
Preparing for hurricanes and blizzards.
Preparing for terrorism.
Preparing for an active shooter.
Preparing for retirement.
Some of them came. Fortunately, some didn’t.
But I spent no time before 2020 preparing for a pandemic.
Maybe you were smarter. Maybe there are people who thought about this.
It might have been nice if they shared it.
This situation is jarring enough for all of us. What complicates it is the fact that it’s such a shock.
Be honest, if you had been asked on Feb. 4 what you’d be doing on April 4, what you’re doing right now wouldn’t have made the first 100 guesses you’d have made. That might even apply to March 4.
I sure as hell expected to be watching the Mets on TV playing the Nationals in Washington. Instead, I’m “playing” the game on the computer baseball game my son gave me (OOTP21 – highly recommended!).
That’s as close to Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil I’m going to get today.
We’ve complained a lot about how ill-prepared and ill-responsive Trump and his “all the best people” have been. Their complicity – and, by the way, all the people who support and voted for this buffoon – in this tragedy is unmistakeable and unforgivable.
But we weren’t ready. We never thought about something like this. Ever.
For some reason, either we didn’t listen to our grandparents or they didn’t say much about the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed millions. That’s the nearest parallel to this in recent history.
Maybe we were lulled when would-be pandemics were foiled. When Ebola was limited mostly to three African nations from 2014 to 2016 – in large part to a coalition led by the United States and President Barack Obama. When the first SARS virus – this is the second – was held in check in 2003 by an international coalition led by the United States and President George W. Bush.
So maybe we’re guilty of thinking party politics wouldn’t matter when it came to dealing with pandemics.
So as we negotiate this ordeal – as we in greater New York and the other hotspots of this outbreak listen to the wail of sirens and see the tears of people who’ve lost loved ones without the ability to say goodbye – let’s keep this old expression in mind:
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Of course that means getting rid of Trump on Nov. 3.
But it also means being sure we, the survivors of COVID-19, and future generations are ready for the next one. Even if it doesn’t come until the 22nd century.
It means developing the protocols for treatment in medical facilities throughout the world.
It means building enough of the life-saving devices lacking in this crisis – and inventing new types of equipment that are easy and quick to build anywhere they’re needed.
It means returning some of the manufacturing we’ve outsourced to China and other nations on the other side of the world. Particularly apparel and paper products. There’s no good reason there aren’t enough masks and gowns and other personal protective equipment.
It means finding a quick and easy way for everyone to find out if they’re sick. The test situation in the United States is ridiculous. You and I should be able to wake up in the morning, take a quick test, find out if we’re OK – and then either eat breakfast or call the doctor.
It means establishing orderly methods of handling the crisis – from a national clearing house for essential goods to maintaining safe zones in which people who are healthy can go to find help for who those who aren’t.
It means preparing for the mental and emotional strain that this crisis imposes.
And, again, it means getting rid of Trump. That can’t be emphasized enough.
By the way, two of the next three presidents after Harrison – Zachary Taylor and James K. Polk – died of intestinal diseases that might have been linked to the lousy water in the White House. (Taylor died as president, Polk died shortly after he left office.)
Eventually, though, Washington solved the problem.
I don’t know that we can ever solve the problem of pandemics. In an interconnected world, that seems unlikely.
But if sicknesses are going to happen, let’s not forget this. We owe it to those we’re losing.
Let’s prepare for the next pandemic. And hope it never comes.