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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Two

 
Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinating a young child in 1955. When he refused to patent his vaccine, he was dubbed "the people's scientist."

 

The Anti-Vaxxers

 

  

Smallpox inarguably shaped the course of human history by killing countless millions in both the Old World and the New World. Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination in the late 18th century, and the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, rank among the greatest achievements in human history.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

 


I had never met an anti-vaxxer until I moved to upstate New York. I know they are everywhere in the interstices of our lives, but I had never met any. I think I was at a July 4th party when I heard a parent of young children complain that she'd have to home-school her children rather than give them vaccines. There had been a serious measles outbreak in New York State, and the legislature had acted decisively. No vaccines, no return to school. When I asked this parent why she refused to vaccinate her children, she told me, definitively, that vaccines cause autism, a debunked theory. She was an educated woman. What had she been reading? Moreover, as a parent, she continued, it was her "right" not to vaccinate her children. That gave me pause. What if every parent refused to vaccinate their child? The answer is not complicated: we'd have a resurgence of all sorts of diseases that have not been entirely eradicated, including polio.


I am old enough to remember polio epidemics every summer. Like other privileged New Yorkers, my parents made certain that their children were not in the city during the hot months. Polio is primarily spread through contaminated water or food (fecal-oral transmission), thus the terror of public swimming pools.

 

And then there were vaccines. My physician mother said, "My children will be first in line." The Salk vaccine arrived, then the Sabin oral vaccine. I recall standing online in the school cafeteria with my best Brownie girlfriend. We were in our uniforms, lots of badges. The vaccine was given to us little tykes as a special treat on cherry-flavored sugar cubes. No more polio.


My husband had undetected polio. He was robust and he survived—one of the lucky ones—but the entire left side of his body is smaller than the right. It was only years later that a doctor measured his uneven legs and figured out he'd probably had polio.

 

Lack of compliance to state government mandates has become a theme during the COVID-19 pandemic in America. It portends trouble when a new vaccine is available, possibly as early as November, just in time for the results of the election. If we don't all take it, COVID-19 will not be eradicated. It's a deadly disease, a terrible disease. And the pandemic is global. How can a parent justify endangering their child for years to come? How can any of us justify endangering our neighbors, national and international?
Conspiracy theories effloresce among under-educated populations. The check-out woman at the supermarket the other day said, deadpan, "I don't want them to put anything into me. It's alive. It will make me get it." I didn't dare ask if she was registered to vote, or if she planned to get the regular flu shot, though I should have. She was fearful and I felt bad for her; she is an essential worker, exposed to COVID more than I, a good reason to get the vaccine, I said. She asked me more questions about live vs. dead vaccines. At least she was thinking, I told myself, processing the way a vaccine works. "Just get it," I said. "Protect yourself and your loved ones. Try not to worry." But I have no ready reply to the seemingly more educated anti-vaxxers, and no illusions that I can persuade anyone with rational, scientific ideas, or with this blog post. I defer to the legislators to pass laws that mandate vaccines for the safety of all citizens. Like it or not, that is the role of government.


People 18 years of age and older who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org (link is external)or ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04470427 for details.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Two

 
Limestone houses on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY

 

We Take a Walk

 

 

After working most of the day on our computers, my husband and I decided to take a walk in town to get some air and light. I had already exercised early in the morning on our stationary bike while listening to Friday's New York Times "The Daily" podcast, a scary overview of the coronavirus. All my fears were confirmed and solidified; we are in for a long siege. This realization made me pedal really fast and stay on the bike until the end of the podcast. When my mind wandered away from accepting the pandemic reality, I fantasized a trip to Iceland. I've always wanted to go there.


I already miss the gym, which I had decided to forgo three days ago—machines close together, all that sweat. There's always chit chat at the gym and I missed that most of all. As a free lancer who works from home, micro-connections refuel me and are essential to my well being. Now everyone gets to work from home, so there's solace in that, I suppose, because we are in this together; we are not alone. Not surprisingly, I've been on the phone a lot as even conversations with my husband do not replace the daily conversations I so enjoy. Even worse, I do not get out to teach; all my workshops have been cancelled. And meeting friends for a meal or a coffee or a drink is not possible. No gatherings, no hugging. We must attend to this psychological and sensory deprivation and find ways of assuaging its effects. More voice than email or text, I'd say, more phone calls than posts on social media. Staying in touch means literally—staying in touch.


For every writer external and internal landscapes are interconnected. Like musicians, visual artists, and actors, we are blessed—or afflicted—with heightened sensitivity and have to take special care during historic, life-changing events. True, they can become an inspiration also, so we must keep working in some way or, at the very least, document our experience of the surreal world we are now living in.


Shortly after 9/11 a reporter from the LA Times called to ask me how long it would take for that atrocity to find its way into literary endeavors. The odd thing was, it already had. I was teaching at Gotham Writers Workshop and NYU at the time and writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry nonstop for all the spoken word events around town. This work was raw, most of it non-publishable, yet some have been collected into anthologies as "testimony." Even that kind of in-the-moment writing is valuable, both as writing practice, and as documentation for the historians who will write about our era in the decades to come.


We live but an instant on the timeline of history, one reason why our fascination with what is old and preserved never wanes. Walking Huguenot St., the 17th and 18th century landmarked buildings stir conversation and many questions. The Lenape settlement in New Paltz dates back more than 5,000 years; we walk their sacred land. Imagine an epidemic at that time, I said to my husband as we sat on a moss-covered bench in front of the Dutch Reformed Church. Many illnesses were untreatable, many deadly. The indigenous population suffered most grievously when the European settlers arrived; they were decimated by pathogens previously unknown in their world. And though there are many Huguenot descended families still living in New Paltz, there are no indigenous people anywhere nearby. The remnants of their bands migrated west and north, joining other tribes for survival.


A few months ago I spoke to one of the curators at Historic Huguenot Street about new findings, not just skeletons and burial sites, but adult-sized cradles found in the houses. The sick and dying were laid in them and rocked gently, she told me, usually by slaves.

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