When I was a kid, scientists were a big deal, almost as important in the movies I watched as cowboys. At the Saturday matinees, we learned that when you’re under attack by Godzilla, or the Blob, or space aliens, things always go better when you listen to the people in lab coats. In the world outside, hydrogen bomb drills and the fear of losing “the space race” to Russia, added to the mystique of scientists.
So why is it now, when the world is under far greater threat than it was during the Cold War, that so many people don’t just ignore, but actively denigrate the advice of scientists, and especially medical scientists? It’s not just in America. Recently, a large crowd marched in Berlin, packed close together and without masks, to protest covid-19 restrictions.
In a twisted way, it was comforting to learn that America isn’t the only land of idiots. It also makes the issue more complex, for the German protestors are clearly not members of the Cult of Trump. One clue is afforded by historical precedents – fear and denial are nothing new in the face of pandemics!
The More Things Change…
The August, 2020 issue of National Geographic, devoted to the history of major pandemics, points out that anti-vaxxers were present at the very beginning of vaccination.
A 1721 outbreak of smallpox in Boston led to a treatment through the intervention of an unlikely trio, which included Cotton Mather, the Puritan fanatic responsible for the Salem witch trials. Mather’s African slave, Onesimmus, described to him a procedure used in Africa to inoculate against the disease using a bit of tissue from someone infected. Half the population of Boston contracted smallpox. The mortality rate was 15% among those untreated, but only 2% among those who underwent the inoculation. For his efforts, and later writings, which suggested that disease is caused by “tiny organisms,” Mather received hate mail and his house was fire-bombed.
Decades later, Edward Jenner, a doctor in rural England who had suffered through Mather’s treatment as a boy, noted the local opinion that cowpox, a disease affecting cattle, might prevent smallpox in humans. In 1796, he performed the first treatment using tissue from a human afflicted with cowpox. The procedure proved far safer than Mather’s, and received the name “vaccination,” after “vacca,” the Latin word for cow. Anti-vaxxers began to protest immediately, citing fears that “people could develop cow-like tendencies, catch animal diseases, or even sprout horns.”
The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 – which first appeared in Kansas rather than Spain – infected 500 million people, a third of the world’s population at that time. Twenty to fifty million died. (History.com). We find parallels in the official response then to our current situation:
Official recommendation of a useless and harmful “cure:” The U.S. Surgeon General, the U.S. Navy, and the AMA Journal recommended aspirin to those sick with the flu, in doses up to 30 mg a day. Current medical opinion is that more than 4 mg a day is toxic. A number of deaths attributed to the flu may have resulted from aspirin poisoning.
Government push to reopen backfires: American involvement in WWI peaked in the summer of 1918, prompting Philadelphia to organize a “Liberty Loan Parade” to raise morale and sell war bonds. The Philadelphia Director of Public Health asserted that most of the city’s cases were “normal flu” rather than Spanish flu, so the city set the parade date for September 28. Two-hundred thousand people attended, packed close together and not wearing masks. Three days later, all 31 of the city’s hospital’s were full. A week after that, 4,500 Philadelphians were dead and 47,000 were infected. Schools, bars, churches, and theaters were closed, but morticians were overworked and able-bodied persons were urged to serve as gravediggers. Some families had to bury their own dead. During the two years of pandemic, 17,000 residents died.
In contrast, St. Louis, Missouri closed schools and movie theaters and banned all public gatherings at the first sign of contagion. Their peak mortality rate through the pandemic was one-eighth of Philadelphia’s.
Anti-maskers: In 1918, many cities established mask wearing ordinances. Compliance was significant at first as the orders were framed as the patriotic way to protect U.S. troops. Those who refused to wear masks were called “slackers.” After the Armistice, resistance to masks grew, often with the excuse that they were “uncomfortable” and “bad for business.”
San Francisco set a fine of $5 (about $85 today) for violations, and in one incident, a policeman shot a “mask-slacker” and two bystanders for a violation incident. Nancy Bristow, History Chair at the University of Puget Sound, and author of a book on the 1918 pandemic said, “Today we can look back and see that they flattened the curve and the communities that did enforce much stricter regulations and for a longer period of time and began earlier had lower death rates, but they didn’t have that data tabulated yet, so I think in the aftermath it wasn’t as clear that what they had done had been effective.” (1)
What Do We Make of All This?
The sheer passion with which some people resist precautions like face-masks makes no more rational sense than drinking kool aid at Jonestown. Our political divisions don’t offer an explanation – people are passionate over taxes and fracking, but seldom to the point of shootings or death threats.
Only recently did a lightbulb go on, when a phrase in an article reminded me that denial is the first of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief.”
This is a time of profound loss for everyone on the planet, whether or not we have yet lost a friend or a family member to the virus. Some pandemics, like the 1918 flu, run their course without much alteration to the surrounding social structures, but others, like the 14th century bubonic plague, sweep those structures away and change everything. I’m pretty certain that covid-19 will prove to be the latter kind of plague.
Especially in times of fear and uncertainty, it’s natural to seek guidance from authorities, but those who place all their trust in outer authorities are vulnerable. Lies, misinformation, and wishful thinking can be fatal.
Some time ago, I listened to a discussion of “positive psychology” on NPR. Pessimism can feed depression, but one researcher claimed it was part of our DNA, because it has carries an evolutionary value. He gave the example of two prehistoric hunters caught in a violent thunderstorm. One looks up to a nearby cliff and says, “Look – a nice dry cave!” The other frowns. “I don’t know,” he says. “Seems a likely spot to meet a bear.” Which of the two was most likely to live long enough to pass on their genes?
These are times to dispassionately review the best information we can find, and then listen for the guidance we can find within.
As the sergeant used to say on Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there!”