by Larry P. Johnson
Reprinted from “The San Antonio Express-News,” June 27, 2020.
(Editor’s Note: Larry Johnson is an author and motivational speaker. You may contact him via email at [email protected].)
History does have a strange way of repeating itself, and it can teach us a lot — if we’re willing to learn.
On June 17, 1916, an official announcement was made in Brooklyn, N.Y., of the existence of an epidemic disease called polio. That year, there were more than 27,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths due to polio in the United States, more than 2,000 deaths in New York City alone.
The names and addresses of individuals with confirmed polio cases were published daily in the press, their houses were identified with placards, and their families were quarantined. The 1916 epidemic caused widespread panic, and thousands fled the city to nearby mountain resorts. Movie theaters were closed, meetings were canceled, public gatherings were almost non-existent, and children were warned not to drink from water fountains or go to amusement parks or the beach.
The disease hit without warning and required long quarantine periods during which parents were separated from their children. It was impossible to tell who would get the disease and who would be spared. Does this sound familiar?
Polio ravaged our country for decades. At its peak in the 1940s and ’50s, polio would paralyze or kill more than half a million people worldwide annually. It was a plague. One day you had a headache, and within hours you could be paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe.
Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. The city closed the swimming pools, and everyone stayed home, cooped up indoors. Summer seemed like winter. In 1952, the polio epidemic in the United States set a record — 57,628 cases were reported. Of that, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with disabling paralysis. To put this in perspective, the U.S. had less than half the population in 1952 that it has today.
Then Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine. Testing began in 1952, and it was approved and made available for widespread use three years later. An oral vaccine followed in 1962. As a result of widespread immunization against polio, the disease has now virtually been eliminated in the United States.
So, as scary as it may feel right now and despite the immense number of lives lost to coronavirus, we know it will be conquered. It is possible that within a year, or maybe less, scientists will come up with a safe and reliable vaccine that will provide us with not only the protection from the virus but the peace of mind we are yearning for.
We will mourn the loss of loved ones, struggle to regain our economic equilibrium and hopefully have learned some valuable lessons on how to be better prepared to deal with the next virus. For indeed there will be others, scientists say.
We absolutely must require our leaders to be more vigilant and more willing to heed the advice of epidemiologists and other experts, take strong action to mobilize and direct all necessary resources to where they need to go early on, be totally open and honest with us about the dangers we face, and be clear, consistent and decisive about the solutions they propose.
I have no doubt we will win the battle against COVID-19. But as we recover, let us pause to reflect on the mistakes that were made and resolve to do much better next time.
And that’s how I see it.