A tale of two pandemics: How a US president responded in a strangely different time
US President Barack Obama (R) meets with Republican President-elect Donald Trump at the White House on November 10, 2016 (AFP Photo/Jim Watson)

It wasn’t quite what you’d call a softball question from the media at a press conference marking the president’s first 100 days in office:


“Mr. President, with the outbreak spreading and worsening, can you talk about whether you think it’s time to close the border with Mexico, and whether--under what conditions you might consider quarantining, when that might be appropriate?”

Now, the question was not about COVID-19. It was about something called the “swine flu” that was ravaging Mexico and just beginning, it was feared, to hit the U.S.

And the president was not Donald J. Trump. On the day of the presidential press conference, Trump was making national news in another way:

“NBC says Donald Trump will be firing more stars next week when ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ returns for another round,” wire services reported that very day.

No, the President was Barack Obama, and the going was already tough. Obama’s first 100 days had been marked by vicious partisanship on both sides, including a bitter party line dispute over the $789 billion stimulus bill that would ultimately be remembered for getting the U.S. out of its recession.

But somehow, back in these ancient times, the president didn’t view the tough question about the border and quarantine that day as “nasty” and he didn’t make the answer about well his administration was doing.

Here’s the official transcript of Obama’s answer:

“THE PRESIDENT:  Well, first of all, as I said, this is a cause for deep concern, but not panic.  And I think that we have to make sure that we recognize that how we respond -- intelligently, systematically, based on science and what public health officials have to say -- will determine in large part what happens.

I've consulted with our public health officials extensively on a day-to-day basis, in some cases, an hour-to-hour basis.  At this point they have not recommended a border closing.  From their perspective it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States.  We have ramped up screening efforts, as well as made sure that additional supplies are there on the border so that we can prepare in the eventuality that we have to do more than we're doing currently.

But the most important thing right now that public health officials have indicated is that we treat this the same way that we would treat other flu outbreaks, just understanding that because this is a new strain we don't yet know how it will respond.  So, we have to take additional precautions -- essentially, take out some additional insurance.  That's why I asked for an additional $1.5 million, so that we can make sure that everything is in place should a worst-case scenario play out.”

But probably the most significant thing, in retrospect, is what the politically besieged president added to that answer:

“I do want to compliment Democrats and Republicans who worked diligently back in 2005 when the bird flu came up.  I was part of a group of legislators who worked with the Bush administration to make sure that we had beefed up our infrastructure and our stockpiles of antiviral drugs like Tamiflu.  And I think the Bush administration did a good job of creating the infrastructure so that we can respond.  For example, we've got 50 million courses of antiviral drugs in the event that they're needed.”

Sound familiar today? Didn’t think so. This was 11 years ago, although it might feel like 111.

But not everything was different. Turns out, there was an argument about what to call this new threat, because it was known at the time as the “swine flu.” Obama’s team was under pressure to find a new name, and not because he had gotten caught uttering some “Kung-Flu”-style racist slur.

No, it was an international problem. Israeli officials publicly urged Obama to call it the “Mexican flu.” They were quoted as “saying the reference to pigs is offensive to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities over pork,” the Associated Press reported at the time.

The news report added, “While the biggest outbreak and serious illness to far is in Mexico, scientists don’t yet have proof that’s where the new virus originated.”

The Obama administration eventually settled on calling it the “H1N1 virus,” although not everyone used the term.

The virus had been with the nation less than three weeks when Obama held the news conference. The CDC estimated that from April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, the virus caused 12,469 deaths in the United States.

Yes 12,469 in one year, as opposed to more than 200,000--growing exponentially--in less than seven months of COVID-19. Of course, Donald Trump wasn’t president back then.

He was just telling people on national TV that they were fired.