Epidemics Then and Now

Mar 16, 2020 | Coronavirus | 0 comments


By Heather Wood Ion

We were used to the swimming pool and theaters closing each summer as we were reminded of polio, but this time was different. This time there were signs on our doors, and all three of us were bedded down in the back bedroom on the ground floor. I think that must have made monitoring our fevers easier, or perhaps we were kept away from my elderly grandfather upstairs in his room. This was scarlet fever, and we were in quarantine.

We did puzzles, and our parents read to us, but I do not remember the sickness itself. We ate applesauce and had to gargle often with salt water. The public health nurse came every other day—cool hands and thermometers! She brought any groceries we needed. The milk man did not leave the bottles on the porch as usual but poured the milk into a large pitcher and took his bottles back with him. Since it was before our town had television, our entertainment was entirely up to us: we made up stories to engage not only baby brother, but the big sister who resented deeply being confined. When the signs were taken down, my parents let us out into the garden and freedom smelled of the fresh cut grass, the blossoms on the fruit trees, and our dog who rejoiced with us.

Polio was different, polio was fear. Where would it hit this year? Who would get it? One day in class Joanne was absent and it was whispered that she was sick. Then her desk was cleared away. Then we were told she was dead. Laurie’s Dad, whom we all knew from the farm and the summer picnics, was in something called an iron lung. He recovered enough to breathe on his own but was paralyzed and never came again to the picnics. Pam was one of the young girls skipping, and then she had heavy, ugly leg braces. Two of our neighbors were doctors; every summer their kids were sent out to a lakeside cabin far away from town, and their cars smelled of bleach and the antiseptic, Dettol. Then came the vaccine and the lines of each class were like parties—we were so proud of our injections!

Now I read the news and think how lucky we were to deal with those epidemics without the media of today. A public health doctor or nurse spoke in the schools and at church about what we must and must not do. The local paper dedicated a section to guidelines and warnings. The party line on the telephone kept each family aware of what infections were where in our town. But neighbors also brought soup and fresh bread and extra juices—they did not wear masks or gloves, they would put a casserole on the porch, knock on the door and turn away before anyone opened the door. Somehow with few resources we found ways to help, even by making sure the garden was weeded so that a sick family had one less worry. We trusted our scientists to tell us the truth, and we knew we were in the challenges of life together. Viruses know we are all one.

When Jonas Salk reflected on the success of his polio vaccine, he wanted that success turned toward health. He said: “We know how to deal with epidemics of disease, it must be possible to create an epidemic of health.” He would have been deeply concerned about the current epidemic of fear, knowing that fear is corrosive of immunity. He would challenge us to restore a robust public health system, and to remind ourselves that even with quarantines and dangerous infections, we must care for each other. Our vitality and our resistance to infections depend not only on science for our public good, but on our shared reliance on the truth that life will find a way. Life means we are not alone, we only become who we are capable of being through our connections to others. Nurture those connections as we endure in order to transcend and we will have, one day, an epidemic of health.


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