Sunday, December 13, 2020

Paging Dr Gorgas

New Year's Eve is getting closer and Key West has set a deadline of 10pm to close down festivities that night before midnight. The city has imposed a curfew for the New Year's weekend from ten at night till 6 in the morning. The holiday is curtailed.
Key West
The city is trying to find a balance between encouraging safe behavior and allowing business to function and all I can think is I'm glad I don't find myself in the position of being in charge. This isn't an easy year to be a leader. It's not easy  to know how to cope with a politicized pandemic that keeps hurting people and killing a proportion of those infected. Do we shut down? How do we shut down? What then? Will the vaccine work? Will it allow us to get back to that normal we crave so much? And in the midst of the uncertainty the unqualified throw strong loud firm opinions. You have to die someday was one of the least encouraging. Being a sheep or being seen  as a fear filled weakling is the sort of playground taunt that leaves me puzzled, not offended. But here we are, no New Year's party to speak of this year and a lot of of people are upset with the Key West city commission and the mayor for imposing a curfew to stop the partying all through the entire New Year's Eve weekend.
I have been reading a book written by a Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James first published in 1938 and called "The Black Jacobins," a history of the creation of Haiti by slave revolt. Not only does the history throw light onto a piece of Caribbean history not usually explored but it also illuminates the motivations of other cultures in that rather bleak period. I had no idea that abolishing the slave trade was a political maneuver by the British to wreck the French economy. Apparently 400,000 Africans forced to work in Haiti were producing vast wealth for the French motherland and the British were upset. I was taught in school that William Wilberforce was an abolitionist by moral imperative, whereas James suggests he was put up to his crusade by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston to mess up the French and their monopoly on their own imperial trade links.
Who knows what the truth was, but the economic imperative of slavery is unarguable so the notion of wrecking an economy by abolition seems to carry more weight to the common sense mind than a sudden vision of social injustice forcing a country to unravel its economic underpinnings. I feel rather the same way about the pandemic. Morality versus economy, a dilemma though in a rather less stark way than the brutal ownership of human beings as slaves.  We still have to face the moral question of how to save lives and prevent disease, while still keeping our economy going.
Stores downtown are closing and shops catering to the defunct cruise ship trade more so by far. The government has permitted the ships to travel again but the first cruise ended in disaster when passengers came down with coronavirus and the cruise line had a struggle to get a country in the Caribbean to agree to disembark the infected ship. In the same way on land at home people can be allowed to undertake activities but the question fundamentally is do people of their own volition want to take the risk of infection to keep the economy strong? It's all very well saying businesses should be open but how many customers want to risk getting infected to go to the gym or the movies or to sit in a restaurant? Will enough customers run the risk of infection to keep the business profitable? And what happens in the hospitals when this risky behavior leads to infection which requires stays of several weeks in hospitals which may not have enough beds? How important is that trip to the restaurant to the diner or to the economy?
I was one of those children  given a free sugar cube with pink fluid on it, free by the National Health Service, with the promise I would never get polio and I never did. A friend of mine, a couple of years older was among the last Americans to have polio and he still suffers from the side effects that are expected in older people who once had polio as children. He has worn special orthopedic shoes and limped all his life: I haven't.
On the other side of the coin my mother, a woman in many respects ahead of her time, refused the offer of a thalidomide drug used to reduce the pain of morning sickness. Had she take it I might have been born with foreshortened arms or legs like contemporaries I met at school, because the drug had a defect.
I can see problems ahead on the vaccine front in a world not used to easily preventable yet fatal diseases. Yellow fever used to sweep Key West in the 19th century and no one knew why until the mosquito was found to be the cause. The discovery was made during the Panama Canal construction period where workers were killed by the dozen by the fever. You may have heard of the former Walter Reed Naval Hospital in Washington but you may not know it is named for the scientist who figured out definitively that mosquitoes were the cause of the deadly epidemics. Army surgeon Walter Reed heard of research done by a Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay who first proposed such a possibility and Walter Reed tested and confirmed the hypothesis. His research was used by US Army Surgeon Dr William Gorgas stationed in Havana who was so successful at wiping out yellow fever by wrecking mosquito breeding grounds he went to Panama to help build the canal disease-free and he succeeded brilliantly.
Nowadays yellow fever is unheard of in Key West and when occasional West Nile fever crops up it is dealt with rapidly and effectively as the source is known to be the same mosquito, and where  Dr Gorgas led the way a hundred years ago in vector control of the mosquito we follow today. Should you choose to visit a country with potential for yellow fever you will be required to get an easy inexpensive vaccination for travel. Yes indeed, governments have been requiring certain vaccinations for travel for decades, long before the conspiracy theories about Covid 19 started cropping up among the uninformed. I had a vaccination card tucked into my passport when I rode my motorcycle through Africa in the 1980s and thought nothing of it. Except I was glad to be vaccinated. 
Malaria, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio, smallpox, all consigned to the history books, just as bankruptcy and almost annihilation that have almost wiped out Key West in the past and periods of poverty pretty much forgotten today. There are lots of hard times we choose not to study and remember in the flush of our self absorbed certainty about modern life. I don't like hard times for anyone but I don't think coronavirus is going to do any worse for this city than any of the previous plagues did in the long run. I just wish more people knew their history and faced our current problems with less yelling and more thoughtful, planned reactions. Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay as isolated as possible and get this chore finished. And live.
As it is the city is doing it's best and I am glad to see how serious mask wearing has become and how determined the city is to keep us alive until we can come out the other side of this chaos. Being angry because a street party is half cancelled seems a rather petulant reaction in the face of so much death, disability and pain. But I have come to expect no better from people who should know better. The mayor is a brave woman and more should be thanking her for giving it everything she's got on this one, even if like me you don't always agree with her publicly held positions. She has our backs here and we should have the good grace to be grateful.