George Washington’s War on Smallpox — and How He Would Have Handled Covid
A smallpox contagion raged across the continent during America’s War of Independence.
Most of the British army has already had smallpox, either by accident or by inoculation. For George Washington, however, the practice in his army had been to forbid inoculation. Some desperate soldiers risked court-marshal and got it privately. So Washington was in a bind: should he change an established policy so that his army would live?
Smallpox, recall, was a terrible sickness. It disfigured its victims and left them scarred for life — and they were the lucky ones. Three out of ten people who got smallpox died from it. It was intensely contagious. It was wiped out by a global immunization campaign that ended successfully in 1980.
Washington’s dilemma was that giving his men inoculation would put them out of action for two weeks, while the inoculation worked.
Nevertheless, Washington went ahead early in 1777 and made the procedure mandatory for all his soldiers. While they were in winter quarters at Valley Forge, the entire Continental Army was successfully immunized. Thousands of civilians also got vaccinated. It was the largest and most successful immunization program in history to that point.
It was a bold gamble. In the winter of 1777, there were more Americans fighting against George Washington, than fighting for him. Many do not remember that the War of Independence was a civil war, pitting loyalist Americans against rebels. The largest section of non-British troops in the British army in fact consisted of Americans!
So to risk a mass desertion in the ranks by mandating vaccination, was a huge gamble by Washington.
Nevertheless, he went ahead. The lives of his men — and his Cause — came first.
With a nation in the balance, Washington chose mandatory vaccination.
Now, fast forward to 2019, and COVID.
Faced with the prospect of a potentially deadly virus that kills thousands, I bet Washington would have mandated vaccination for the entire country, immediately. This was not a man who fooled around. If you see a danger, and you can cure it, you slap the rules in place and ‘plunge’ forward.
This is ironic, considering how many of the anti-vaxxer crowd squall about the intentions of the Founding Fathers for ‘liberty’. As Washington — and every American who has been involved in a war or a desperate strife — knew, you get liberty by banding together. Only by working as a consolidated unit can you win! Freedom comes from fanatical unity.
I’m not suggesting that Washington would have stood the anti-vaxxers against the wall and had them shot.
But that’s what you do in an army.
And Covid is war.