We Have Been Here Before, and We Are Still Here
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It is human nature to believe that whatever awful thing we are going through must be unprecedented and the world forever changed. But neither this virus nor the response to the pandemic is unprecedented, and it remains to be determined how much or how long it will change our lifestyle.
While we remember truly cataclysmic events, the rest of history fades quickly from consciousness. This pandemic is no different. While it may be a novel coronavirus, a pandemic is not novel. Seventy years ago, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the US. The playbook we follow today, similar to the one used during periodic polio outbreaks between 1910 and 1955, has its origins 600 years ago in Italy. In fact, the translation of the Italian word “quarantine” is 40 days (quaranta and giorni) – as in the length of time for isolation during the Plague.
Consider the following passage referencing the familiar uncertainties, challenges and mitigation strategies of American life in the early 1950s:
“The public was horribly and understandably frightened by polio,” says Oshinsky, who grew up in Queens, N.Y. “There was no prevention and no cure. Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family. I grew up in this era. Each summer, polio would come like the Plague. Beaches and pools would close – because of the fear that the poliovirus was waterborne. Children had to say away from crowds, so they often were banned from movie theaters, bowling alleys, and the like. My mother gave us all a “polio test” each day: Could we touch our toes and put our chins to our chest? Every stomach ache or stiffness caused a panic. Was it polio? I remember the awful photos of children on crutches, in wheelchairs and iron lungs. And coming back to school in September to see the empty desks where the children hadn't returned.
David Oshinsky is the director of the division of medical humanities at NYU and a Pulitzer Prize winning author for his book, Polio: An American Story. The quote is from an NPR interview he gave five years ago this month.
The fear was real. Polio became one of the most debilitating, communicable diseases among children in the United States. According to Post-Polio Health International, from 1951 to 1956 more than 200,000 poliomyelitis cases were reported, with over 40% of those being paralytic polio. But the scarier statistic is that, according to the CDC Pinkbook, about 72% of people infected with poliovirus were asymptomatic and resolved in a week, and another quarter presented “flu-like” symptoms. Unfortunately, approximately 3% developed meningitis and another 0.5% suffered paralysis. But the issue then, as today, was that even those who were asymptomatic were contagious – highly contagious. In 1955, the U.S. began widespread vaccinations, but it took another quarter century to eradicate polio in the U.S., and is still not eradicated globally.