For the last 120 years, we Americans have usually responded to perceived national emergencies by sending troops overseas. The Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Desert Storm, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan.
COVID-19 is different. We can’t mobilize a few divisions and send them to China to contain this “foreign virus” — it’s already here. And since our country has no recent experience with incurable infectious diseases, we have little ability to combat them. We’ve long ignored and defunded public health, perhaps because no one under 75 remembers the epidemics that once raged in the United States.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, poliomyelitis epidemics occurred every year. Deadly and incurable, polio’s victims were often children seven to eleven years old. Those who recovered were frequently partially paralyzed or left with withered, useless limbs.
Born in 1940, I was a student at Steele Elementary in those days. I vividly remember the fear that consumed parents and children alike, as the seasonal epidemics began, and we wondered whether our school would be affected, and whether any of us kids would get it.
Our fears weren’t misplaced. 57,628 cases were reported in the United States in 1952, with 3,145 deaths and 21,269 cases of mild to disabling paralysis. Several kids from Steele were infected, including a close friend who lived nearby. They were promptly quarantined, as were their families.
Scientists had searched for a cure for many decades, which finally came with the Salk/Sabin vaccines in 1955 and 1962. A year after the Salk vaccine was used in mass immunizations sponsored by the March of Dimes, annual cases dropped to 5,600 in 1957, and to 161 in 1961.
So here we are 60 years later, facing an enemy that wouldn’t have scared or surprised Americans of previous generations. The 1918 flu, polio, cholera, diphtheria, whooping cough — it’s a long list. Science conquered them all. And now? We’ve become used to epidemic-free living, thanks to vaccines, antibiotics and herd immunity. We’ve spent trillions on national defense, mistakenly believing that the tools of warfare can solve every serious threat to our nation. We skimp on public health, and shrug our shoulders at antivaxxers and flu shot avoiders.
So here we are, apparently less prepared for COVID-19 than many third-world countries. Delaying, dithering and playing politics, the government failed to realize for weeks that it had a real crisis on its hands and made a bad situation worse.
Meanwhile, we’re learning just how dependent we are upon the now-disrupted routines of life. Our elected officials solemnly decree that we shouldn’t be in places with more the 50 people (or is it 10 now?). Idiots, have you tried shopping lately? Costco on Saturday, King Soopers on Sunday — hundreds of otherwise sane and sensible people desperately seeking toilet paper, or canned tuna, or a few bananas. We’re not hoarders — we just want to eat.
We’re in a sudden recession now, as millions of us will suddenly be without income, without jobs or running a foundering businesses. Will the recession end when the virus finishes its run, or will it deepen thanks to financial vulnerabilities that the epidemic has brought to light? The merry consumer spending that amounts to 70 percent of the economy may reset indefinitely, exacerbating the instability of debt-fueled corporate zombies. We have no idea — we just want to recapture our tranquil and now vanished lives. No more dining out with friends on Friday nights, no more movies at Kimball’s, no more visits from grandchildren, no long-anticipated three-day trip to Vegas — all canceled, thanks to the damn virus.
So now that we’re housebound, what to do? I turned to John Greenleaf Whittier’s extraordinary book-length poem, “Snow-Bound.” First published in 1866, it’s presented as Whittier’s recollection of his family of origin in rural Massachusetts during a fierce winter nor’easter. It was my mother’s favorite in old age, and it has become mine. Here are its penultimate lines.
“I hear again the voice that bids
The dreamer leave his dream midway
For larger hopes and graver fears:
Life greatens in these later years,
The century’s aloe flowers to-day!”
And a hopeful portent — our aloe vera plant, after several years on the windowsill, sent up its first towering flower stalk four days ago. Virus, begone! Meanwhile, there are always dogs to walk…