By Bill Foege
In the midst of a global pandemic with COVID-19, we seek lessons from the past and we try to define what leadership instructions might be useful today.
It is ironic that we question current leadership, since May 8 marked 40 years since the World Health Organization declared the world free of smallpox, an effort that involved U.S. leadership. We celebrated that achievement with a webinar, hosted by WHO, with a few of the surviving veterans of that campaign, discussing what smallpox eradication lessons could be of use to coronavirus workers. Smallpox ranks with the most repugnant afflictions, and it terrified people of all ranks of life for centuries. WHO has estimated that smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. Voltaire, himself a victim, once estimated that 60% of children born in France would develop the disease, with one-third dying, another third pockmarked for life and a third recovering without pockmarks. The disease decimated Native American populations, and even President Abraham Lincoln was in the early stage of smallpox as he delivered his Gettysburg Address.
Lessons? First, know the truth. It is the only way to avoid blind and inefficient action. Our U.S. experience with coronavirus has obscured the truth daily.