Like many people, I often find myself wondering how Charles Krauthammer (1950–2018) would respond to current events. Fortunately, the syndicated columnist left behind a trove of writings and television transcripts that offer perspective by way of analogy. Krauthammer isn’t here to comment to coronavirus. But he did talk about earlier public-health emergencies.
When the H1N1 strain of flu broke out in 2009, Krauthammer argued for caution. “I think what’s really important is to see how virulent it is,” he said on Special Report with Bret Baier. “What we really worry about is the flu epidemic of 1918, which killed in very high numbers.” The next day on Special Report, Krauthammer continued this line of reasoning. “Right now, it looks like the regular annual flu, something like it, and if it stays like that, the idea that you ought to be cautious but not panicked is exactly the right approach.”
Six years later the Obama administration responded to an Ebola outbreak in Africa. “You want to get to where the source is because it’s now entered the cities in West Africa,” Krauthammer said on Special Report on September 16, 2014. When it’s in the villages, it can be controlled. But the way to do it here is with quarantine. We’re going to have to be very strict. Anybody who appears to have a symptom has to be held apart, and we’re going to have to start doing that the way we do with benign illnesses, relatively speaking, like TB.” A travel ban, he said a month later, would also be a reasonable countermeasure.
Krauthammer devoted his October 16, 2014, column to the Ebola crisis. Noting missteps in the Centers for Disease Control’s response, Krauthammer wrote, “In the face of a uniquely dangerous threat, we Americans have trouble recalibrating our traditional (and laudable) devotion to individual rights and civil liberties. That is the fundamental reason we’ve been so slow in getting serious about Ebola.” A pandemic, he said, raises questions about America’s devotion to privacy and about our resistance to quarantines, to evacuation and relocation of infected patients, and to travel bans.
“President Obama, in his messianic period, declared that choosing between security and liberty was a false choice,” Krauthammer wrote. “On the contrary. It is the eternal dilemma of every free society. Politics is the very process of finding some equilibrium between these two competing values.” America worked out the balance in its approach to terrorism. But not with Ebola. Or with coronavirus. The problem? “Viruses don’t wait.”