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Emily Venezky
By Emily Venezky March 11, 2020

No connection between the US national elections and international pandemics

If Your Time is short

  • Most of these diseases were discovered and spread before the election years and were minimally mentioned during campaigns.

  • SARS, avian flu and MERS had virtually no effect on the U.S. during election years.

  • One exception: Ebola was a significant campaign issue in 2014. 

As coronavirus misinformation spreads like wildfire, there have been conspiratorial attempts to connect the disease to election year politics. Many tweets and Facebook posts are making the false claim that there is a trend of disease outbreaks matched to elections.

"Every election year has a disease," reads one.

The posts connect SARS to 2004, avian flu to 2008, swine flu to 2010, MERS to 2012, Ebola to 2014 and 2018, Zika to 2016, and the coronavirus to 2020. 

"Coincidences? NEVER." 

One post we saw supposedly linked to the World Health Organization (WHO), but that lead to a 404 error page

Our research showed that most of these connections weren’t real. We decided to take a closer look and see if the diseases were significant enough to appear in party platforms or mentioned during candidate interviews. In most cases, they weren’t. 

Online, fact-based news is going to be very important in the coming weeks. Please consider donating to PolitiFact today.

SARS

SARS is a coronavirus disease that spread from animals to humans and was diagnosed in China in 2003. SARS is a respiratory illness that affects breathing and is usually associated with coughing and a fever. It is spread through infected droplets that can survive on surfaces and could affect you if airborne. 

The SARS outbreak was stopped by July 2003, and in 2004 China took precautions by putting an embargo on animals that could have been the source of the disease. 

SARS affected eight people in the United States, and all these cases were contracted from travel abroad. SARS did not spread within the United States during the 2003 outbreak, and there have been no cases reported since then.

SARS wasn’t a main campaign point in the 2004 presidential elections. It was referenced once in the Republican Party platform that was released in August 2004, under a section on international diplomacy that mentioned it as a joint concern of the United States and China. 

Avian flu

Avian flu is usually found in aquatic birds and poultry, but in rare cases the influenza can cross over and infect humans. The symptoms of avian flu are like general influenza, including cough, fever, sore throat or headaches. 

The two most prevalent avian influenza viruses, H5N1 and H9N2, caused respiratory infections in humans in China as early as the 1990s. Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Egypt, Thailand, and many other countries struggled with the spread of H5N1 from 2004 to 2014.

In 2014, there was only one case of H5N1 in North America, according to the CDC, and there were never any U.S. cases.

As far as the 2008 presidential campaign is concerned, the Democratic Party platform mentioned avian flu briefly to justify strengthening international support systems. 

Nevertheless, the avian flu was a pandemic before the 2008 presidential election and has continued to be a problem even today, with new strains appearing as recently as 2017. The 2008 strain of the influenza had no significant influence on elections that we could determine. 

Swine flu

The swine flu, more specifically H1N1, started spreading in early 2009 and combined avian, swine, and human influenza in one new strain. The symptoms of the disease are like most flu symptoms, including a fever, chills, cough, sore throat, or a runny or stuffy nose. It also spreads like most influenza, with infected droplets that could be airborne or left on surfaces.

The 2009 swine flu outbreak was the "first global flu pandemic in 40 years," according to the CDC. The panic surrounding swine flu led to many extreme measures, including school shutdowns and people camping outside of free swine flu vaccine centers. But not everyone approved of the vaccine. 

PolitiFact checked a statement from October 2009 by Glenn Beck, a conservative talk show host who was against the swine flu vaccination. He believed the vaccine would lead to neurological problems like that of an influenza vaccine from the 1970s. We rated his statement Mostly False. 

Swine flu was a politically polarizing disease when it came to vaccinating and expanding the government’s health budget to prevent more outbreaks. It affected Americans directly and led to preventative legislation, but we found no examples of representatives using H1N1 in their campaigns during the 2010 midterm elections.

MERS

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, is a viral respiratory illness that was first found in dromedary (or one-humped) camels and then spread to humans. Most cases of the disease came from direct or in-direct contact with camels. 

Human-to-human transmission of MERS is more rare and mostly appears in unsanitary health care settings. Symptoms of the disease include fever, coughing, or trouble with breathing that can lead to pneumonia. 

MERS was first diagnosed in Saudi Arabia in 2012, according to the CDC. All cases of MERS in 2012 were within the Arabian Peninsula, with two unlinked cases only reaching the U.S. in 2014. 

MERS was not brought up by any campaigns or included in any party platforms in the 2012 presidential election. It didn’t affect the U.S. until 2014, and even then the only comment was from press secretary Jay Carney, when he said at a press conference that President Barack Obama had "been briefed" on the MERS developments. Even though MERS did occur during the 2012 election, it didn’t seem to have any effect on U.S. politics.

Ebola

The Ebola virus emerged periodically and caused outbreaks in many African countries as early as 1995. Ebola is introduced into the human population when there is close contact with the bodily fluids of infected fruit bats, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope or porcupines. Human-to-human transmission only occurs when touching infected human bodily fluids or objects that have touched infected human bodily fluids. 

The first signs of Ebola include fever, fatigue, or a sore throat. Later, the infected person will experience vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function. In the most deadly cases, there is internal and external bleeding.

The first large outbreaks were in 1995 and 2000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, according to the CDC’s timeline. 

The CDC also documented only four diagnosed Ebola cases in the U.S. in 2014, and only two of the Ebola patients were infected in the U.S. In 2018, there were only outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.

In 2014, an NPR report broke down how Ebola was used by both Democrats and Republicans. 

Democrats would use Ebola to "argue that budget-cutting Republicans have deprived the government of the resources it needs to keep Americans safe." Republicans used the government’s reaction to Ebola as an example of President Obama’s "incompetence" and linked Ebola to border security. 

In contrast, Ebola was not a topic in the 2018 election because Ebola was only concentrated in two African countries and had a very low chance of coming to the U.S. again, according to the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Ebola was not a huge threat to Americans in the United States despite some cases in 2014, but it was used as a political tool in the 2014 midterm elections. Comparatively, there were no cases of Ebola in 2018 in the United States, and it was not used as rhetoric in the elections.

Zika

Zika is spread mostly through the bite of infected mosquitoes, but can also be transmitted through unprotected sex. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, headache, joint and muscle pain, and red eyes (conjunctivitis). While Zika has a low death rate, it became a larger issue when it was linked to fetal brain defects in infected pregnant women’s children. 

Outbreaks of the Zika virus have been reported in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands since 1952, according to the CDC. It began to appear more in the United States in 2015 and 2016 because of people travelling from tropical climates and from local mosquitos in Texas and Florida. In 2016, the Zika outbreak hit a peak, with 5,168 symptomatic Zika virus disease cases reported in the U.S., according to the CDC’s 2016 report.

Zika sowed division in an already divided Senate but didn’t impact the presidential race. President Obama’s administration asked Congress "for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to enhance… efforts to prepare for and respond to the Zika virus" in February 2016. 

It took almost seven months for Congress to approve a federal spending bill to prevent the Zika virus from spreading. The New York Times reported that they voted to advance the funding, despite disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on where the funding should come from. A month later, the bill had fallen apart, with the Democrats rejecting provisions added by the Republicans. Finally, the bill passed on Sept. 28, 2016, with concessions made by both sides.

During this congressional tug of war, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both brought up the Zika virus only once during their campaigns. When Trump was asked about how he would deal with the Zika virus while he campaigned in Florida, he said that Rick Scott, the state’s Republican governor, was doing a great job and "he's going to have it under control, he probably already does." Clinton urged Congress to pass a spending bill and "called for more public education about the virus’ dangers, the development of a rapid diagnostic test, investment in treatment and a vaccine, better mosquito control and abatement, and improved access to health and family planning services."

While the Zika virus had an impact on Americans in 2016 and showed how divided the Senate was, we found little impact on the 2016 presidential election.

COVID-19

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a respiratory disease that has symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. It is spread by airborne respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes and can also be spread by touching surfaces that droplets have landed on.

Like it says in the name, COVID-19 was discovered in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. It has spread across the world as people traveled to and from China. There are now 647 cases in the U.S. as of March 10, 2020.

As COVID-19 has spread in the United States, Congress and President Donald Trump have approved funding to create a vaccine and prevent a pandemic. On March 6, 2020, Trump signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill. 

This time, the virus has been a major point of discussion for the president and other presidential candidates. 

Our ruling

A post on social media says "Every election year has a disease" ... SARS in 2004; avian flu in 2008; swine flu in 2010; MERS in 2012; Ebola in 2014 and 2018; Zika in 2016 and the coronavirus in 2020. 

But most of these diseases were discovered and spread before the election years. Some of the diseases never impacted the United States, and never came up as a large point in a campaign. There is some evidence that Ebola in 2014 impacted the election, but otherwise there is no straightforward connection between national U.S. elections and pandemics.

The post is not accurate. We rate this statement False.

Our Sources

Tweet, Feb 27, 2020

404 error page, visited on March 6, 2020

NCBI, The impact of avian influenza viruses on public health, 2003

MedlinePlus, Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), March 4, 2020

CDC, Basic Information about SARS, Jan. 13, 2004

CDC, SARS Response Timeline, April 26, 2013

The American Presidency Project, 2004 Republican Party Platform, August 30, 2004

Mayo Clinic, Bird flu (avian influenza): Symptoms and causes, Nov. 1, 2017

WHO, H5N1 avian influenza: timeline, March 17, 2014

CDC, The 2009 H1N1 Pandemic: Summary Highlights, June 16, 2010

The American Presidency Project, 2008 Democratic Party Platform, August 25, 2008

CDC, Outbreaks of North American Lineage Avian Influenza Viruses, Dec. 10, 2018

Mayo Clinic, Swine flu (H1N1 flu): Symptoms and causes, Jan. 10, 2019

CDC, 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Timeline, May 8, 2019

New York Times, Obama Declares Swine Flu Outbreak a National Emergency, Oct. 24, 2009

Politico, Glenn Beck warns that in 1970s, flu shots caused neurological problems, Oct. 14, 2009

WHO, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), Dec. 20, 2019

CDC, About Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), August 2, 2019

CDC, MERS in the US, August 2, 2019

Obama White House Archives, Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Jay Carney, May 13, 2014

WHO, Ebola virus disease, Feb. 10, 2020

CDC, Years of Ebola Virus Disease Outbreaks, Oct. 15, 2019

NPR, Ebola Blame Game Takes The Stage At Midterm Election Debates, Oct. 16, 2014

Association of Health Care Journalists, In covering Ebola outbreak this time, some lessons to remember, June 7, 2018

CDC, About Zika Virus Disease, May 20, 2019

CDC, Symptoms: Zika virus, May 21, 2019

CDC, For Pregnant Women: Zika virus, May 9, 2019

CDC, Zika Virus Overview, Oct. 7, 2019

CDC, 2016 Case Counts in the US | Zika Virus, April 24, 2019

Obama White House Archives, FACT SHEET: Preparing for and Responding to the Zika Virus at Home and Abroad, Feb 8, 2016

New York Times, Senate Votes to Advance Emergency Funding to Fight Zika Virus, May 17, 2016

New York Times, Zika Bill Is Blocked by Senate Democrats Upset Over Provisions, June 28, 2016

NPR, Congress Stops Bickering And Approves $1.1 Billion To Fight Zika, Sept. 28, 2016

CNN, Donald Trump punts to Rick Scott on Zika, August 3, 2016

Time, Hillary Clinton's Plan to Fight the Zika Virus, April 29, 2016

CDC, Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Feb. 29, 2020

CDC, Transmission of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), March 4, 2020

CDC, 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Summary, March 9, 2020

CDC, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the US, March 10, 2020

New York Times, Trump Says ‘People Have to Remain Calm’ Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, March 6, 2020

Politico, Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax’, Feb. 28, 2020

Politico, Trump floats his own coronavirus hunches on 'Hannity', March 5, 2020

Politico, Biden blasts Trump for calling coronavirus a ‘hoax’, Feb. 29, 2020

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No connection between the US national elections and international pandemics

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