Not My First Pandemic

A recent story in USA Today opened with the following,

For many Americans, the novel coronavirus pandemic has generated illness-related fears that have little precedent in our lifetimes.

But 60 million Americans over the age of 70 have seen this horror show before: the polio scourge that ravaged the world’s young from roughly 1916 until Jonas Salk’s vaccination arrived in 1955.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/21/coronavirus-quarantine-haunts-polio-epidemic-survivors/2868771001/

Epidemics and pandemics are nothing new. The first recorded pandemic occurred prior to the birth of Jesus Christ. What’s the difference between an epidemic and pandemic, you may ask.  The answer is reach. If the disease is localized it is referred to as an epidemic. If a medical catastrophe crosses multiple borders it may be designated a pandemic.  The Greek prefix pan…means all.

The deadliest pandemic in history is the flu outbreak of 1918. Not only did it kill millions worldwide, but much like today, people around the globe were “social distancing” and wearing masks, although they were more pleased with the mask situation than many today (https://www.history.com/news/1918-spanish-flu-mask-wearing-resistance).

Fast forward to the 1950s and ‘60s.Americans were recovering from WWII. They were sure that the world was now in good shape.  Then polio hit. The disease had been around for decades, but brought its full force in the 1950s. In 1952 alone more than 50,000 children were infected. Also known as “Infantile Paralysis,” children were the hardest hit demographic. 

Polio struck fear in the hearts of people worldwide. Having lived through this, I can affirm that the fear was palpable. Businesses and recreation areas were closed to the public. For me the greatest loss was the public swimming pool. A city kid whose family did not own a vehicle, this was a meeting place as well as our “swimming hole.” Schools were closed. Some churches closed, others were open but did not allow children to attend. No internet services were available. Kids couldn’t go to summer camps. As today, quarantines and lock-downs were part of life.

Parents worried that, having survived a world war, their family might not live through this viral plague. They had reason to be worried. The numbers of the afflicted rose, leaving many children paralyzed – or dead. We talked about it at school (I don’t recall my school being shut down) and gossiped about those we knew were affected. Fear stalked us. People we knew were being confined to iron lungs, steel cylinders in which the patient would be placed to help overcome paralysis of the respiratory system. They were that generation’s respirators. None of us wanted to end up in the lung.

In the late 1950s, help arrived in the form of a new vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. All over the US inoculation stations were set up in schools hospitals and commercial spaces. I remember waiting in a long line, extending down Weybosset Street in Providence, for my polio shot being administered at the Outlet Company, the largest retail store in Rhode Island (now gone).

I graduated from high school in 1962. The fear was still there. Many young men who were enlisting in the armed forces worried that they might not pass the physical. Later that year, on a flight home to Providence, I actually ran into a guy who had been a year ahead of me at Central High School. I didn’t know Skip well and was surprised to see him.  He had been a polio victim. He had been in an iron lung for a while and I think he still had to spend some time in one. He was weakened. He was never going to regain his former health. But he was a drummer in a band and was able to travel and play.

It was not an easy period in our history. Panic, fear, resistance to imposed authority were all part of life – as is also the case today. We, as a nation, got through it. If God wills, we will also get through this one. But we will be damaged. 

NOTE: The History Channel has a number of episodes on epidemics and pandemics.

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