October 18, 2021

I haven’t run the numbers for a while. Quite frankly, when I dive into them, I end up getting depressed so best not to look to often or too deeply these days. We are definitely on the downside of the Delta wave locally with cases having fallen by nearly 50% in the last two weeks and fewer than 1,000 new diagnoses daily again. Hospitalizations and deaths are also down with about 50 people dying a day in the state. That doesn’t seem like much until you consider that’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every week and we are a relatively small state with only about five million people. In 1982, seven people were murdered in the Chicago area with tampered Tylenol capsules and in the aftermath we completely changed how goods are packaged, transported, and sold to prevent something similar happening in the future. We’re now at 726,000 US deaths from Covid and the response from a significant portion of the population is one of blase nonchalance.

Indifference I get. No matter how horrible the circumstances, life must be lived, work must be done, meals must be prepared, children must be tended to, and all the thousand and one other little details of our ordinary lives. Sometimes its necessary to just shut out the evils of the world in order to continue living. People in war zones or other hellish environments adapt and keep on going, letting atrocity fall into the background in order to get through another day while trying to fulfil their responsibilities as they see them. What I don’t get is those who are rising up in direct action and in opposition to basic public health measures and good science, placing themselves and their families in harm’s way. This is one I’ve been wrestling with for some time, trying to see if it fits in some sort of logical narrative way with other social trends.

‘What About The Children?’ has become a sort of cliche rallying cry over the last century or so, usually applied to some sort of ridiculous over reaction to a vaguely sensible social policy -often times used to cover subjects to which children and child rearing are only tangentially related at best. This near fetishization of childhood is a relatively new development in American culture. Earlier in American life, children were not regarded as innocents in need of protection from life but neophytes who needed to be schooled in life’s harsher realities so they could cope with tough times as an adult. In agrarian America, children were a necessity to make sure enough produce could be wrested from the land to sustain the family through the winter. The children of the immigrant waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were put to work in dirty and dangerous occupations for pittances in order to help lift these new American families out of dire poverty and to ensure the profits of the owners of industry. Children’s stories often included gruesome details and illustrations to help toughen them up. The reforms of the progressive era of the early 20th century got kids out of factories and coal mines and into school. The wrenching social changes of the World War I era helped spread new ideas of equality and that education should go beyond just the basics for literacy. The Depression and FDR’s social reforms helped bring the country together in national identity over regional identity with an understanding that what was good for all was good for the individual.

The post World War II prosperity spawned the Baby Boom, a generation that in general that wanted for nothing and who were raised by parents traumatized by the horrific events of their formative years. Stories were Disneyfied, the new medium of television was sanitized, history was whitewashed to protect this new generation of children from harsh realities. As the Boom matured, they rebelled leading to the massive cultural changes of the 60s and 70s but they always have carried with them a nostalgia for a more perfect time, one that never actually existed outside the tropes of mass media, and have passed this on to their children and grandchildren.

I think some of the current actions and reactions regarding the protection of children from the very real dangers of Covid are caught up in all of this. Antivaccination movements, while present, never really caught on when the standard vaccines for such diseases as polio, measles, and whooping cough appeared in the fifties and sixties. The parents of the time, having known bad times, were more than eager to protect their children by any means necessary and childhood vaccines passed into the common wisdom without much fuss. When the boomers and Gen X grew up and became parents themselves, things changed. Some of this was due to the ideas of alternative healing that took off in the 70s. Some of this was due to the rise of mass media platforms. Some of this was due to celebrity culture in which well known individuals used their influence to peddle ideas with no basis in fact but which gained traction anyway.

The modern antivaccination movement started to gain steam in the early 1980s when a reporter named Lea Thompson (not the actress) produced a documentary called DPT: Vaccine Roulette which linked the vaccine, using flimsy and circumstantial evidence, to a host of health problems in children. Lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers by parents of disabled children began to skyrocket and the manufacturers warned congress that if they weren’t protected, they would get out of the business. Congress, concerned that vaccines might become unaffordable or unavailable, passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986 which more or less shields vaccine manufacturers from liability regarding their products. In 1990, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was created to take reports and track issues with vaccines. While there is a lot of data in VAERS, it is voluntarily self reported and not systematized making it very difficult to draw conclusions or understand trends in a sound epidemiologic manner. Also during this period, Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, one of the first antivaccine pediatricians, wrote a book decrying vaccination which was taken seriously in some circles. Dr. Mendelsohn also decried the evils of fluoridation, coronary artery bypass grafting, and breast cancer screening so I don’t take him very seriously personally.

The rise of the daytime talk format in the late 80s and early 90s pioneered by Phil Donahue and then taken into new areas of social argument by Morton Downey Jr. gave a forum to such noted scientists and health educators as Jenny McCarthy and Lisa Bonet who appeared multiple times decrying vaccines as unnatural microorganisms responsible for sudden infant death, brain damage, autism, and other ills, despite having no evidence for any of these claims. Well to do parents on the left latched on to the unnatural idea and vaccine rates began to decline in wealthy liberal neighborhoods throughout the 1990s. Another turning point came in 1998 when British physician Andrew Wakefield published an article in the medical journal The Lancet, linking the MMR vaccine with the development of Autism. This particular paper captured public attention and entered the zeitgeist where it remains, despite the fact that the study was falsified, the journal retracted the paper and Dr. Wakefield lost his medical license.

Over the last generation, the advent of social medial has allowed for the amplification of alternative voices and has allowed antivaccine communities to come together, share resources, and recruit others to their belief system. A major driver has been society’s anger at Big Pharma and the outrageous price gouging that has become a standard part of their business model over the last few decades. Vaccines have become an easy target for people frustrated over their inability to afford health care or cope with an increasingly complex and unfriendly health system. When it is obvious that a public good such as health care is not operating in the public interest, it becomes easier and easier to ascribe more and more nefarious motives as to why that is and then conspiracy thinking tends to take hold and eventually it becomes easy to believe that the manufacturers of vaccines are incapable of telling the truth or actually acting in the public interest. Where is all this going? I think if we see where antivaccination sentiment comes from, it becomes easier to understand the mindset of those that hold it. They see themselves as holding the line against a corrupt system that does not actually have the health of America as its chief interest and I can’t say that they are completely wrong in that idea.

What is a bit harder for me is how this translates into antimask and antidistancing sentiment. Those ideas are common sense that have been proved time and again in the control of pandemic disease going back millenia. Perhaps our education system, after twenty years of no child left behind and teaching only to the standardized test has created a generation incapable of critical thought and incurious enough to look up even basic historical information, despite a portal in their pocket to much of human knowledge. Perhaps the politics of antivaccination, in the attempt to draw tribal lines against provaccinators, simply blurred all of the boundaries between various public health precautions making all of them suspect. The educated classes directing the lumpen proletariat have all been vaccinated of course and its a rather cynical move of theirs not to correct the thinking of their followers but rather abandon them to the realities of infectious disease. Rupert Murdoch, for instance, took a private jet to Great Britain to get a vaccination the first week they became available. He’s 90 years old and not a fool.

While it would be easy to demonize those arguing against public health measures as Phoenicians offering up their children as sacrifices to Kronos, it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is. All I can do is wonder, try to be on the right side of the argument based on what I know of medicine and health, and keep my hands washed and my mask on indoors.

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