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China’s Coronavirus Outbreak Reminds Me of a Polio Epidemic I Survived
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China is responding to the spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan much as countries have always reacted to life-threatening epidemics. At every level of society and government, fear of death – or, more accurately, fear of being held responsible for death – drives decision-making, which is consequently often ill-judged.

Officials do not want to cause a panic – but then again, nor do they want to be accused of inaction, or of hiding dire truths about the health crisis (many people have become convinced that more people have been infected, have even died, than the authorities are admitting).

I have been struck in the past few days by the similarity between reactions to two epidemics, though they took place 64 years apart in cities that could not be more different. One is currently taking place in Wuhan in central China, with its population of eleven million; the second struck Cork, an Irish city with a population of 114,000, in 1956.

I know a lot about the polio outbreak in Cork because, on 30 September of that year, I was taken to St Finbarr’s Hospital in the city, after being diagnosed with the disease. My parents were convinced I was dying, but I survived, though my legs were permanently weakened; I still walk with a pronounced limp.

I was aged six at the time and have a precise memory of the epidemic as it affected me personally, but I knew little about its course outside the hospitals where I was being treated. It was only 50 years later that I got to know the full history, when I went back to Cork to interview doctors, nurses and patients, as well as reading Irish health ministry documents and accounts in contemporary newspapers.

What I discovered was that as in Wuhan today, local people in Cork were convinced that they were being fed false information downplaying the severity of the polio outbreak. “There were rumours everywhere in the city,” said Pauline Kent, a physiotherapist who treated victims, “that dead bodies were being carried out the back door of St Finbarr’s at night.” The medical authorities were, in fact, truthfully announcing the number of new cases and fatalities each morning – but they were simultaneously undermining their own credibility by issuing upbeat statements, dutifully reported in the local newspapers, with headlines such as “Panic Reaction Without Justification” and “Outbreak Not Yet Dangerous Say Doctors”.

Unsurprisingly, such forced optimism was counterproductive, entirely failing to reassure a local population terrified that their children would die or be disabled for life (the other name for polio at the time was “infantile paralysis”). Despite the doctors’ insistence, the people of Cork did not understand that while polio is highly contagious, meaning that almost everybody became a carrier, only one or two per cent of carriers would suffer long term health consequences (about 50,000 people in and around Cork probably got the virus, though only 576 of those had passed through St Finbarr’s by the time the epidemic ended in 1957).

What comes across most strongly in letters from that period is that a frightened people want somebody to blame, and want visible action. People outside Cork asked why the city had not been sealed off, the railway line to Dublin closed. “Let Cork’s own people keep their Polio and not infect our clean city,” urged one enraged letter-writer in Dublin.

This need to blame somebody or something seems to be a feature of epidemics everywhere. During a polio outbreak in New York in 1916, a rumour spread that the virus had been brought by Italian immigrants from Naples; another bizarrely had it that the virus was spread by cats (as a result, 72,000 cats were hunted down and killed).

Similarly, people in Cork were convinced that the government and the local medical establishment were being wilfully blind to the threat posed by the disease. They demanded action – their drains cleaned and schools closed – even when doctors said it would do no good.

At first, the authorities tried to strike a correct balance between being open about the epidemic and not causing a panic. This did them little good because Cork’s population still believe that even worse news was being kept from them.

When my family and I returned to Cork from London in August 1956, we found the streets empty. When we expressed surprise at this, our taxi driver explained, as my father later recalled, that “people are afraid to come into Cork. Business is going to hell. If the epidemic goes on, in a few weeks half the shops in this street will be bankrupt.” Under pressure from advertisers, the local newspaper almost entirely stopped reporting on the epidemic the following month, shortly before I fell ill. The cynics had turned out to be right.

Such censorship was roundly criticised by one official, who wrote to the newspaper: “I for one would be very annoyed if I came to Cork with my family on a holiday and found polio raging and that the business people were prepared to allow me to come and to expose my family to the disease – for the sake of my money as a tourist.”

The Chinese government does appear to have been fairly open about the onset of the latest version of the coronavirus, compared to their secretiveness during the Sars epidemic eighteen years ago. But transparency may not do them much good, because frightened people, Irish or Chinese, naturally look to blame human agency, rather than an unpredictable virus that can only be seen with a powerful microscope. Sealing off the source of infection sounds like an attractive option to those outside the quarantine zone, even when effective quarantine is almost impossible.

ORDER IT NOW

For years after the epidemic had ended, fears ran high in Cork. Maureen O’Sullivan, a Red Cross nurse, told me that “at the sight of my ambulance in their street, people would think that the polio was back. They would run into their houses, get down on their knees to pray. They had lost all hope – they were that frightened.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy, Science • Tags: China, Coronavirus, Disease 
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  1. Anyone getting their knickers in a twist over this latest .gov scaremongering, is innumerate.

    Cast you dumbass innumerate, no-dea-having mind back to the other recent scares: H1N1/Grippe Aviare; Swine flu; SARS… none of those had global death tolls remotely close to the THIRTY SIX THOUSAND who die from normal, common-as-fuck influenza in the average year… in the US alone.

    That’s over 1000 a week (during flu season), dead, in the normal course of events… year in, year out.

    And everyone is suitably sanguine about that – as they ought to be.

    But every time .gov (append a country suffix depending on your jurisdiction) gets a sniff that they can scare the fuck out of the bottom 90% (who are fucking IMBECILES), they go at it like maggopts on rotting flesh (or Catholic archbishops on children’s rectums, or mohels on a baby’s bleeding cock).

    Wake the fuck up, you dunces.

    Unz-world should be better than this.

  2. MEH 0910 says:

    When my family and I returned to Cork from London in August 1956, we found the streets empty. When we expressed surprise at this, our taxi driver explained, as my father later recalled, that “people are afraid to come into Cork. Business is going to hell. If the epidemic goes on, in a few weeks half the shops in this street will be bankrupt.” Under pressure from advertisers, the local newspaper almost entirely stopped reporting on the epidemic the following month, shortly before I fell ill. The cynics had turned out to be right.

    Your parents should have taken you back to London before you fell ill. They never should have taken you to Cork in the first place.

    • Replies: @MEH 0910
  3. MEH 0910 says:
    @MEH 0910

    https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/polio-the-deadly-summer-of-1956-2117253.html

    My parents, Claud and Patricia Cockburn, were curiously unworried when they heard of an abnormal number of polio cases in Cork in the summer of 1956. At the time we had moved from Ireland to Hampstead for a few months so my father could work at Punch magazine, which Malcolm Muggeridge had briefly revivified. My mother, though, never liked London and was eager to get back to the Georgian house and farm where we normally lived, in the countryside about 30 miles east of Cork city.

    I was six and my brother Andrew nine. My parents knew that we were vulnerable because polio, also called “infantile paralysis”, primarily affected children. News about the outbreak was sparse, but the risk seemed small. Brook Lodge, to which my parents had moved after World War II, was a mile and a half from Youghal, a small seaside town where nobody had recently got polio. The house had been built partly with defence in mind during the Irish land wars with long stone walls on one side and two fast-flowing streams on the other. Perhaps its isolation – we had no car or telephone – gave my father and mother a deceptive sense of safety. They thought that if Andrew and I did not take the trap or gig into Youghal, and kept away from the beaches, we would be all right.

  4. We can’t win them all

  5. TG says:

    But we have to remember that, even more than usual, our government is almost totally corrupt and cannot be trusted. So obviously, rumors spread and people’s imaginations run wild.

    President Obama let a batch of child refugees in from Central America, and settled them in school districts across the nation. Very soon after, American school children were coming down with paralysis and some dying, of “D68 enterovirus,” of a variant that until that time was endemic in Central America and basically unknown in the United States. Cause and effect, or coincidence? We will likely never know, because our government will NEVER publicly present any factual analysis of the relevant epidemiology.

    When our institutions are corrupt and dishonest, assuming the worst and responding to rumor is the best we can do, isn’t it?

  6. JImbobla says:

    about 50,000 people in and around Cork probably got the virus, though only 576 of those had passed through St Finbarr’s by the time the epidemic ended in 1957

    As will be the case with this “common cold” coronavirus mutation. Usually only the very ill seek medical attention. Who goes to the clinic with cold symtoms (sore throat, mild fever, achy muscles)?
    Not to downplay the effects on those who get gravely ill, but who knows what their actual percentage of those with the virus are?

  7. @Kratoklastes

    Do you think that acting like a raging asshole makes your argument more convincing? The reality is quite the opposite.

    • Agree: Mr McKenna
  8. “Let Cork’s own people keep their Polio and not infect our clean city,” urged one enraged letter-writer in Dublin.

    Well, yeah. This is entirely sensible and reasonable.

    “people are afraid to come into Cork. Business is going to hell. If the epidemic goes on, in a few weeks half the shops in this street will be bankrupt.”

    Gee, an epidemic was keeping people out of Cork? Of course it was! Sad about the businesses, of course. But whose job is it to risk their child being crippled for life so that the shopkeepers could continue making money?

    But transparency may not do them much good, because frightened people, Irish or Chinese, naturally look to blame human agency, rather than an unpredictable virus that can only be seen with a powerful microscope. Sealing off the source of infection sounds like an attractive option to those outside the quarantine zone, even when effective quarantine is almost impossible.

    This is nuts. How on earth does the most obvious and sensible thing to do – quarantining off a place where an epidemic is occurring – constitute “blaming human agency”? Yes, it would be bad for the people quarantined. But the cause of their inconvenience is not bad bad ignorant and panicky outsiders implementing basic emergency measures, but the fact that there’s an epidemic going on. Duh. You may as well criticize people running from a lava flow coming down the street for “panicking”.

    Which is not to say that a quarrantine is, in fact, possible. China is mostly lawless – the government’s only concern is its own political power, and culturally the people admire fraud. The site of the epidemic is a major rail hub. There are chinese everywhere, and they mostly have no regard whatever for the nations that host them. /r/chinesetourists . It’s going to get out.

    But on the positive side, these dreadful modern plagues have an odd habit of actually not killing all that many people. 8098 people actually contracted SARS, and 774 died. In the world. I wouldn’t care to catch this latest flu, but I doubt it would be much worse than the flu I caught and survived four years ago.

  9. One of my earlier memories is being injected with the polio vaccine. I had had two injections already that month for other purposes. We were queueing with the other mothers and children to go into the nurses caravan set up outside our cottage hospital. Inside the caravan, I saw the needle and the unsympathetic face of the nurse (still clear over 60 years later) injecting her umpteenth child that hour. I panicked and ran. The other mothers caught me and then accepted the needle meek and mild. Out in the wilds of Mid Wales, polio did not come close although later a boy with his leg in iron joined our school for a while. I’ve met several polio ‘victims’ since. One a Henley class rower. One an international IT professional. You managed a decent professional career too. Well done.

  10. Thanks for the anecdote. I found it interesting and illuminating.

  11. HEREDOT says:

    I hope it is not a biological attack.

  12. @Kratoklastes

    The number of cases is doubling every six days. That is known as exponential growth. Even if there were only two cases today there would be millions infected in a matter of months.

    However, the situation is much worse than that because there is every sign that cases are being under reported. People are dying and having causes such as “respiratory failure” put on their death certificates. Many are not going to the hospital becuase they are too ill, or lack transport, or have seen how packed the emergency rooms are.

    There may be as many as 44,000 cases in Wuhan alone, as of yesterday, according to medical estimates, and that will double in six days.

    I appreciate Cockburn’s reminiscence of the 1956 outbreak of Polio. However, he seems to be using it to promote the idea of no travel restrictions. Well, I suppose it’s too late for that now. This pandemic is self-sustaining and has likely spread to the four corners of the world, thanks to the globalist mentality against quarantine or travel restrictions of any sort. I suppose banning flights from China would have been demed racist by the SJW nutters.

    Quarantine, by the way, comes from the Venetian practice of making ships suspected of carrying the plague stand out to sea for forty days. Quaranta giorni.

  13. kikz says:

    “The number of cases is doubling every six days. That is known as exponential growth.”

    how do we KNOW this is accurate as indicator of exponential growth/dissemination and/or new infection rates which have an avg lag time of up to 14days?

    factors for the calc of that ‘number’ of ‘infected’ must include number of patients processed, processing time of patients, and determination/confirmation of diagnosis, tallies then made, then reported, then disseminated. rates for mortality would require much the same.

    ….any of which may actually ‘account’ for this ‘doubling of cases’ every six days.

  14. bjondo says:

    Lab escapee.
    Engineered virus.

    5ds

  15. @Kratoklastes

    Whatever happened to your faith in human nature ?? Oh …you lost it…just like I did. With instant communication and the internet these days, the media has unlimited space to flog any theme they want. Hence every little thing is beaten until the public becomes bored or until another more interesting “fiasco” pops up. Take the West Nile virus in Canada. Long after it was over and the public had moved on to the next scandal/ drama/ whatever, the press was till harping on it. In one news cast a crow was found several hundred miles north west of Toronto in a remote and uninhabited forested area and of course the the 6 o’clock news was ” Is the West Nile epidemic really over ?” Few if anyone asked how a crow could be found in the middle of the bush where no one lived and if found why the bird would be flown out to be tested for West Nile virus. As you stated, such is the stupidity of the masses. The last time I looked 8o people had died in China but is it really an epidemic, or a plague given that China has 1.4 billion people ? I tried to do the math but my calculator ran out of zeros. If interested anyone can divide 80 by 1.4B and advise us the percentage. In the meantime the media houses are plastered with photos 24/7 of Chinks wearing masks, sunglasses, gloves and plastic suits. Some idiots like Tsar Nicholas (what a dumb handle) commented on the “exponential” effect of the virus ! This is the drivel idiots write and fools lap up as a dog laps up vomit. If we accept Tzar Dickolus hypothesis we can expect the population of the world to be wiped out in a few months. I share your frustration and your rant…it is difficult to endure the stupidity so prevalent in this day and age.. These days the bullshit is so deep you need a bulldozer to get through it. In the meantime enjoy the show. Where else can you be entertained for free by a bunch of clowns ??

  16. In 2018 close to 15,000 people were murdered in the USA alone. What therefore is the number of people killed worldwide ??
    The number who died from the SARs epidenic WORLDWIDE was 774.
    The number dead from this Corona virus is 130 to date.

    We can safely assume you have a higher risk of being murdered than of dying from this virus.

    The whole thing is an overblown load of b/s !

  17. In the 1950s there was no vaccine and no treatment for polio. I never heard of an epidemic anywhere in Australia and nobody was scared. Within 10 km of my home at that time, 5 or so years ago there were still people in hospital in iron lungs who were infected then and had paralysed chest muscles. They were kept alive but had terrible lives. There is no way to cure them if they’re still alive. I used to chat at the local dance in 1955 to a girl in a wheelchair due to polio. In the early 1970s, I worked with a programmer in a wheelchair due to polio. It was real and people suffered but you could do nothing about it in the 1950s.

    As soon as there was a vaccine in the 1960s, we rushed to get it. Fear has a point if you can do something to save yourself. [email protected]

  18. Reminds you of polio, huh? Well, it reminds some very expert NAM guys of CIA’s Frankenstein GOF bioweapons.

    https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.01.30.927871v1.full.pdf

  19. Polymath says:
    @Kratoklastes

    Who you calling innumerate?

    In all the years I have been on Unz.com, I have never seen a worse comment than this one. Congratulations! It combines ignorance of science, ignorance of math, ignorance of history, insult, unhinged anger, dishonest fallacies, and dangerous policy in such a toxic way that I am very unlikely ever to read anything else coming from your screen name.

    I paid close attention to SARS, Ebola, MERS, swine flu, etc., and this one is different, because ***the math is different***. Based on what’s come out so far, it appears uncontainable, the most that can be done (which is still very important and significant) is to slow its spread down enough that a vaccine can be developed in time. It’s possible I’m incorrect about the math, because information is poor quality at this point, but complacency due to the imperfection of the epidemiological data is an insanely stupid attitude.

    I regard you with even more contempt than I do the flat-earth idiots. Spouting ignorance and error about geodesy is harmless, but when a pandemic is involved, being both too stupid to know what you don’t know and too asinine to shut up until you can learn something makes you a menace.

  20. mike99588 says:

    1. Engineered or not, I do think it likely that this is a lab escapee. A chinese knock off of a Level 4 biolab with a highly hazardous sample, stolen or misappropriated. What could possibly go wrong?

    2. A number of nutrient changes can greatly modify viral attacks on the general population. Vitamin D3 5000-10,000 iu per day, time release vitamin C toward bowel tolerance amounts, beta glucan immune stimulation for starters. Less (no) sugar.

    3. Several days of IV vitamin C (e.g. 1000 mg/kg adult body mass 3x a day) and high doses of vitamin D3 should cure an(y) acute viral attack without problems. see also Dr. Fred R Klenner on IV C with viral pneumonias papers starting 1948, and Dr Robert Cathcart (oral C doses to bowel tolerance for diseases).

    Some decades ago, I actually wrote an early corp. biosafety manual for a lower level lab…

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