Celebrate Like It’s 1952

Once again, America has chosen a government in the middle of a pandemic.  Of course, in 1952 nobody called it a pandemic.  It was just an American epidemic.  The dead and crippled were accumulating in record numbers outside the U.S., but back then we only seemed to notice the misery beyond our borders when we sent our children to war.  In 1952 we were still struggling with the Korean war, but we did not have a full-blown war anywhere else. Unfortunately, we had polio everywhere.

Although there has been much talk of the flu epidemic that swept the globe from 1918 to 1926, few have noted the similarity between our current medical dilemma and the polio epidemic of 1952. I remember it well. Yes, I am that old. Friends, neighbors and relatives were dying every year for decades leading up to 1952, but in that year, it looked like the virus was angry with America and was intent upon killing or crippling many who had survived the horror of World War II.

The number of children and adults affected each year by polio was small compared to the death and disability currently being exacted by Covid-19, but the impact of the poliovirus reverberated throughout the country year after year. Even after having a president, FDR, for more than 12 years who had been crippled by this scourge, the government had no organized approach to the disease. The failure of the government to address such problems was and is inexplicable and unacceptable.

Polio destroys nerve cells that control muscles in the limbs and in the diaphragm. The diaphragm gets air in and out of your lungs. When the virus attacks the nerve cells to your leg muscles, you stop being able to walk. When the virus attacks the nerve cells controlling your breathing, you stop being able to breathe. If you do not breathe, you die. It is that simple.

Covid-19 also attacks your lungs and your blood vessels. It keeps your lungs from getting oxygen into your blood and interferes with your blood vessels getting blood to your organs. You suffocate or have a stroke or lose a limb and die or get lucky and live. Most old people do not get lucky. Many young people do not get lucky.  So, tell me, Covid ignorer, do you feel lucky?

There was much talk of developing a vaccine to protect against the poliovirus. Although the government had spent billions of dollars to develop radar and the atomic bomb during World War II, no such allocation of men (and women), money and materials was deemed vital after the war in the fight against an epidemic disease. Hospitals were filling up with children living inside monstrous cylinders, called iron lungs, and the government did not see a need for universal health care to help its citizens avoid financial ruin. The atomic bomb got the Manhattan Project. The polio epidemic got the March of Dimes.

In the 1950s, the March of Dimes actually solicited contributions of 10 cents from school children.  I was eager to contribute a dime because my favorite uncle was paraplegic thanks to polio and one of my neighbors had just had leg surgery to transfer a muscle that still worked to a site that was paralyzed by polio. I had no money. When I asked my parents for a dime, they told me, “Charity begins at home.” They did not give me the dime. Since the government was not willing to give a dime to the effort to cure polio, I could hardly fault my parents.

I doubt that anyone needs to be reminded of the failures over the past year of the current government to take meaningful steps to address the pandemic. In 1952, the voters replaced the political party they had looked to for help over the prior 20 years. In 2020, the voters decided to at least replace the political party at the head of the Executive Branch.  I have no doubt that health concerns motivated many of those voters.

It was 10 years after the 1952 polio epidemic that a consistently safe and effective vaccine was developed.  The Salk vaccine was available in 1955, but it faced problems.  Cutter Laboratories produced a defective vaccine that infected thousands of children with the virus. The Sabin vaccine became available in the 1960s and the nightmare was over.

As previously mentioned in this column, work on an HIV vaccine has been ongoing since the 1980s without any promising results. The current Executive Branch has at least come up with a Star Trek inspired name for the programs underway in private industry to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.  Gene Roddenberry would be proud to hear that Warp Speed has re-entered the conversation. Unfortunately, Warp engines were dependent upon a nonexistent material, trilithium crystals, to “warp” space and time. Twenty-first-century science and engineering are constrained by reality.

The reality is that some governments have held the pandemic at bay with 20th-century measures, such as requiring mask-wearing and social distancing, restricting travel, identifying carriers, isolating the infected, curtailing commerce, closing schools, etc. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, there has been no centrally organized effort to contain the spread of this virus in the U.S.

The U.S. has been playing “whack-a-mole” against a deadly agent that is harvesting the vulnerable at an accelerating pace. The cook at my local diner told me last week that the stories about this virus were a lot of hype.  He said he knew many people who got the virus, were sick for a few days and had fully recovered. I told him that I knew many people who got the virus, were sick for a few days and were dead.

The misinformation about Covid-19 did not surprise me in March 2020, but it leaves me speechless to hear this ignorant drivel in November 2020.  How many people must die before the survivors take the threat seriously? 

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