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Historian on White House response to COVID: "Clearly, they have not told the truth"

Historian John Barry believes that one of the big lessons the government should have learned from the 1918 influenza pandemic is to "tell the truth." Barry, who wrote a book on the topic, called "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History," does not think the current White House has learned that lesson.

"Clearly, they have not told the truth, unfortunately," Barry told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett on this week's episode of "The Takeout" podcast.

Listen to this episode on ART19

Barry contrasted administration figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious diseases expert, with White House officials.

"Somehow, the White House has managed to politicize attempts to save people's lives," Barry said, referring to President Trump's opposition to wearing a mask in public and his push for states to reopen their economies.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems to be "absent" in taking charge of the response to the coronavirus, he observed.

"CDC has been the center of everything in terms of outbreaks since it was founded," Barry said. "It's been a major disappointment that they've been shunted aside."

Barry compared the COVID-19 pandemic to the 1918 pandemic, suggesting they were "parallel," though there are significant differences. The 1918 pandemic was more lethal and had a shorter incubation period. Several jurisdictions also implemented social distancing measures in response to the earlier pandemic.

"In 1918, many cities reopened too soon and then they had to close down again," Barry said. However, he said that may not be possible for states and cities today: "I think politically, right now, it would be extremely difficult, even if there's a significant resurgence, to shut back down."


Some highlights from this week's episode:

  • John Barry on the White House response to the coronavirus pandemic: "Somehow the White House has managed to politicize attempts to save people's lives."
  • The seeming absence of the CDC from the pandemic response: "It's been a major disappointment that they've been shunted aside."
  • Preventative measures that could have been taken: "The great irony of this entire thing, and tragedy, is that this can be controlled by public health measures. But you have to do those measures."
  • Wearing masks: "It is uncomfortable, but it's not as uncomfortable as getting sick or dying."

Barry also said he believes the death toll could have been diminished if the U.S. had responded more quickly to the pandemic and implemented stricter testing and social distancing guidelines.

"The great irony of this entire thing, and tragedy, is that this can be controlled by public health measures. But you have to do those measures," Barry said. "We know what to do. We can control this outbreak. But we've got to go do it. We've got to execute."

Barry urged people to wear masks outside, even if it is uncomfortable.

"It is uncomfortable, but it's not as uncomfortable as getting sick or dying," he said.

For more of Major's conversation with Barry, download "The Takeout" podcast on Art19, iTunesGooglePlaySpotify and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).  

Producers: Arden Farhi, Jamie Benson, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson
CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin, Julia Boccagno and Grace Segers
Show email: TakeoutPodcast@cbsnews.com
Twitter: @TakeoutPodcast
Instagram: @TakeoutPodcast
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