What Happens When Covid-19 Becomes Old News?

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EDITOR’S NOTE:&nbspThis article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.

The struggle against Covid-19 has often been compared to fighting a war. Much of this rhetoric is bombast, but the similarities between the struggle against the virus and against human enemies are real enough. War reporting and pandemic reporting likewise have much in common because, in both cases, journalists are dealing with and describing matters of life and death. Public interest is fueled by deep fears, often more intense during an epidemic because the whole population is at risk. In a war, aside from military occupation and area bombing, terror is at its height among those closest to the battlefield.

The nature of the dangers stemming from military violence and the outbreak of a deadly disease may appear very different. But looked at from the point of view of a government, they both pose an existential threat because failure in either crisis may provoke some version of regime change. People seldom forgive governments that get them involved in losing wars or that fail to cope adequately with a natural disaster like the coronavirus. The powers-that-be know that they must fight for their political lives, perhaps even their physical existence, claiming any success as their own and doing their best to escape blame for what has gone wrong.

My First Pandemic

I first experienced a pandemic in the summer of 1956 when, at the age of 6, I caught polio in Cork, Ireland. The epidemic there began soon after virologist Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for it in the United States, but before it was available in Europe. Polio epidemics were at their height in the first half of the 20th century and, in a number of respects, closely resembled the Covid-19 experience: Many people caught the disease but only a minority were permanently disabled by or died of it. In contrast with Covid-19, however, it was young children, not the old, who were most at risk. The terror caused by poliomyelitis, to use its full name, was even higher than during the present epidemic exactly because it targeted the very young and its victims did not generally disappear into the cemetery but were highly visible on crutches and in wheelchairs, or prone in iron lungs.

Parents were mystified by the source of the illness because it was spread by great numbers of asymptomatic carriers who did not know they had it. The worst outbreaks were in the better-off parts of modern cities like Boston, Chicago, Copenhagen, Melbourne, New York, and Stockholm. People living there enjoyed a good supply of clean water and had effective sewage disposal, but did not realize that all of this robbed them of their natural immunity to the polio virus. The pattern in Cork was the same: Most of the sick came from the more affluent parts of the city, while people living in the slums were largely unaffected. Everywhere, there was a frantic search to identify those, like foreign immigrants, who might be responsible for spreading the disease. In the New York epidemic of 1916, even animals were suspected of doing so and 72,000 cats and 8,000 dogs were hunted down and killed.

The illness weakened my legs permanently and I have a severe limp so, even reporting in dangerous circumstances in the Middle East, I could only walk, not run. I was very conscious of my disabilities from the first, but did not think much about how I had acquired them or the epidemic itself until perhaps four decades later. It was the 1990s and I was then visiting ill-supplied hospitals in Iraq as that country’s health system was collapsing under the weight of UN sanctions. As a child, I had once been a patient in an almost equally grim hospital in Ireland and it occurred to me then, as I saw children in those desperate circumstances in Iraq, that I ought to know more about what had happened to me. At that time, my ignorance was remarkably complete. I did not even know the year when the polio epidemic had happened in Ireland, nor could I say if it was caused by a virus or a bacterium.



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