COVID-19: Parallels from the past, and hopes for the future

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, a spectre was haunting young people the world over. Its formal name was poliomyelitis, but it was informally known as “infantile paralysis”, because of its propensity to afflict the very young. For many, it was actually a killer. For others, it fell in varying degrees of severity, from asymptomatic or barely detectable to downright paralytic.

My own grandfather had it as a young man in northern Germany; he had a mild case, but it left him with a crippled foot. His toes were curled under due to shortening of the tendons in his sole; they had to be cut so that he could walk again. The slight resultant disability kept him out of the military — which was fine by him, as he wanted no part in that fiasco. But very near the end of Hitler’s disastrous war, when, while still in a hospital bed after a follow-up treatment, he was visited by stern-faced military recruiters, he “volunteered” to join the Kriegsmarine. It was that or be conscripted by the Wehrmacht and sent to the eastern front. If you got sent east, you went to Siberia and never returned. He couldn’t walk without limping, so long marches were out of the question, but he could drive a horse-drawn supply wagon, so that was what he did. Until the British front passed over Nordrhein-Westfalen, he drove a team of horses, supplying the German navy.

When the front passed over and he knew the war was lost, Opa let the horses run, and himself began the long walk back home to his family — his wife, and four small children. Once, as he rested at the foot of a big tree, a gang of hostile Russians — former POWs, who had often worked on farms in the area during the war — confronted him. They thought he was a soldier, and that his limp was due to a war injury; he had to convince them that he wasn’t, and it wasn’t. Had he not succeeded, they might have killed him. (Such revenge-killings, near war’s end, were disturbingly commonplace.) Another time, unable to run, he had to dig himself into a manure pile to hide from the British army as they rolled through the countryside, looking for stragglers to capture and take prisoner; the farmer, who had seen him, gave him some old work clothes and helped him dispose of the uniform. Once dressed as a civilian farmhand, he was safe, and made it home undetected — a deserter with a pronounced limp, but free, and alive.

After the war, however, a new generation of youngsters fell victim to polio. Not all of them lived in iron lungs. Scott Young, a journalist in Omemee, Ontario, wrote a short but moving account of his son’s battle with the disease, not long after the boy’s recovery. He included it in his memoir, Neil and Me. It was later excerpted in Reader’s Digest, under the title “One of God’s Requestmen”. Yes, Neil Young is a polio survivor…fortunately, one who didn’t end up paralyzed (or even with a clubbed foot like my grandpa), though he did spend some time at Sick Kids in Toronto, in an isolation ward with what he later called “the worst cold I ever had”. He grew up to become a rock star, a versatile super-talent who was equally adept in folk, rockabilly, and even early-’80s synth-pop and ’90s grunge. (His synth-infused album Trans, released in early 1982, was what turned me into a fan of his. I roller-skated in endless, foot-crossing circles on the driveway with his robotic remake of his classic from his Buffalo Springfield days, “Mr. Soul”, playing in my head as I recovered from an injury that had landed me in Sick Kids for 2 1/2 weeks the previous winter.)

And in the political sphere, other prominent Canadians who also survived the disease became advocates for the sick and disabled. Paul Martin Sr., who became a leading Liberal and federal health minister, was blind in one eye and partially paralyzed by polio; the condition made him that much more determined to do his job well. His son, Paul Jr., who eventually became prime minister, also contracted the disease, although he was left with no lingering ill effects. And David Onley, who grew up to become a TV reporter (he did his job with the help of a mobility scooter) and later, became the first visibly disabled lieutenant-governor of Ontario, is another polio survivor. CTV tells their stories here:

In the mid-1950s, the Salk and Sabin vaccines would end up banishing the spectre of polio from the developed world; schoolkids lined up to receive their shot (or their sugar cube, depending on which version of the vaccine they got.) Infection rates dropped to near zero. The dreadful visions of iron lungs, leg braces, and child-sized wheelchairs gradually faded.

Today, polio is seen mainly in still-developing countries. The danger of a comeback here is low, but it could increase dramatically if antivaxxers gain enough influence, and if enough credulous parents fail to learn from our past.

And now, with several COVID-19 vaccines in development, the spectre that is currently haunting us could soon be banished, too. Most of the projections I’ve seen would have large-scale roll-outs of the COVID shot coming as early as the first quarter of 2021. Our government is already committed to supplying enough doses for the entire country. Hope is on the horizon. Rates of infection, currently climbing again, must drop, and drop soon.

But this spectre, like that of polio, won’t go away unless we all get that shot in the arm.

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