Did Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 have the same status as “slaves” from Ireland? “Yes!” cry the white supremacists. “No!” retort the anti-racists. While reputable historians differ, today’s furor is more about politics than evidence.
Legal documents of the 1620s and 1630s call the Africans “servants.” Blacks in bondage toiled alongside indentured whites, intermarried with them, escaped with them, rebelled with them. Wealthy white landholders preserved their power through steps to divide and conquer.
If I had chosen a field related to medicine and public health, it should have been epidemiology. Detecting patterns, solving mysteries, analyzing maps, tracing history: What could be more fun?
People must always have noticed some diseases spread from person to person. The word quarantine comes from Italian for forty days, the time Venice made ships from infected ports sit at anchor before anyone got off. Romeo and Juliet could have had a happy ending if no one thought a house with the plague had to be boarded up.
Collecting and mapping data has been a basic tool of epidemiology since the 1850s, when John Snow painstakingly traced a London cholera epidemic to one infected well. I highly recommend Steven Berlin Johnson’s engaging account, The Ghost Map.
With the additional tool of genetic analysis, disease detectives can compare cases of an infection to determine the route it traveled. That’s how epidemiologists discovered coronavirus came to New York primarily from Europe, not China. Clues, suspects, red herrings—these sleuths have it all.
Down the road from my house, the luncheon meat smell has faded from Madison’s former Oscar Mayer plant. Armour and Swift were big names in Chicago, where I lived years ago. Meat packers spurred the growth of Milwaukee and gave Green Bay’s football team its name. To me, spikes of coronavirus in meat processing plants feel up close and personal.
Railroads used to carry livestock from the land-rich West to Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s “Hog Butcher for the World.” At the Union Stock Yards, immigrants from eastern Europe cut and packed pork and beef to ship east in refrigerated railroad cars. Upton Sinclair’s bestseller The Jungle (1906) exposed the horrors of Chicago’s assembly-line slaughterhouses. Public outcry led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, but no change in worker conditions.
Union organizing in the 1930s boosted wages and worker safety. For almost half a century, packing plants offered decent manufacturing jobs. However, refrigerated trucks freed the companies from a need to locate near railroad lines. Chicago’s stock yards closed in 1971. Dispersed rural sites allowed for lower pay and less union influence. To supplement local labor, employers recruited documented and undocumented immigrants. Wages plummeted.
Rapid, repetitive, shoulder-to-shoulder work with sharp instruments was dangerous even in better times. For a perfect storm, add a virus that thrives in cool, damp, noisy spaces and threatens anyone less than six feet away. The only way to produce as much meat as Americans want is to endanger the workers who process it.
The hero’s journey, defined by mythologist Joseph Campbell, is the archetypal story structure of most legends, films, and novels. Willing or not, the hero leaves the ordinary world for a strange and dangerous one, overcomes foes and challenges, and returns home transformed. Transformation happens because the hero must grow beyond old mindsets, habits, or beliefs to survive the quest.
We’re in the middle act of a hero’s journey now, thrust out of “normal” into an unfamiliar land of illness, job loss, fear, isolation, and grief. Though my dragons are relatively few, old patterns hold me back, like discomfort with technology or a penchant for family travel. I’m growing more tolerant of human error, more attentive to the here and now. Perhaps larger changes lie ahead.
What transformations may unfold on your hero’s journey as you face the dragons of this strange time?
I was five years old when my grandparents’ cottage burned down. A few years later, three feet of rainwater flooded our basement. All the photos, letters, and diaries lost to fire or flood held pieces of our lives, though their cash value was nil.
Amid campus unrest in the late 1960s, I made a sharp distinction between life and property. One day my stomach sank to hear of someone’s notes destroyed from fifteen years of research. It was only paper. It was also fifteen years of a life.
The line between life and property no longer feels so clear. Yes, murder is more vile than theft. In a fire, save the cat before the heirloom. But the small business or family restaurant that took years to build up is more than bricks and mortar. It’s also years of the family’s life.
Locke wrote governments exist to protect “life, liberty, and property.” For the Declaration of Independence, why did Jefferson make it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Some say he worried property might protect slaveholders. Some say he knew Locke meant more by property than land and goods.
Property today goes beyond the holdings of the insured and the one percent. For some, it’s inextricably tangled up with liberty, pursuit of happiness, and life itself.
. . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence has no legal authority. But its moral authority to Americans is, I hope, indisputable. The purpose of governments, it states, is to safeguard everyone’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To do so entails laws. The Declaration charges King George with having “refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” “forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance,” and “refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people.” Laws are necessary—as a means, not an end.
What changes when focus shifts from law enforcement (a means) to public safety (the end)? Instead of counting tickets or arrests, the measure of effectiveness becomes accidents averted, conflicts deescalated, homes and neighborhoods at peace. Officers need to know the law, both to stay within it and to protect the rights of everyone. If a law doesn’t help secure those inalienable rights, the law needs to change.
Like many at risk from coronavirus, I expect to hunker down till we get a vaccine. When will that be? Polio history brings to mind my mother’s saying, there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip.
Approval. Licensing a new vaccine depends on tests to prove it safe and effective. Salk’s polio vaccine was licensed, and boxes of vaccine shipped, the very day field trial results were announced. Though the public acclaimed the rush to market, some scientists thought it reckless.
Manufacture. Working with biologicals is iffy. Two manufacturers of Salk-style vaccine agreed to scale up production to supply every country that didn’t already use it. Technical difficulties kept them from fulfilling the contract on schedule.
Distribution. A vaccine won’t reach you and me the day it leaves the plant. Much depends on supply, priorities, and wild cards beyond human control. When ash from a volcano in Iceland closed European airports, at least 15 million doses of polio vaccine bound for West Africa were grounded in Paris and Frankfurt.
One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.
Adages and idioms are odd things. A saying can take on a life of its own and come to mean the opposite of what it says.
An over-ripe apple emits a musky gas called ethylene as it starts to rot. Other apples nearby absorb the ethylene, which speeds their ripening. They in turn give off ethylene as they spoil. The rot spreads.
Curiously, these days to blame a few bad apples for prisoner abuse or police violence or business corruption is to affirm the innocence of everyone else. Of course the proverb says just the opposite: Let a little rot slip through unhindered, and soon the whole bunch will be rotten to the core.
Children will be paralyzed. Mass immunization can’t happen in a time of social distancing. While vaccination campaigns are tragically deferred, the skills and resources for other polio activities help fight the new pandemic.
Surveillance workers detect cases of both COVID-19 and polio, trace contacts, and transport specimens for analysis. Polio-funded vehicles and phones are at their disposal. Laboratories, data systems, and emergency operations centers set up against one virus are being used against another.
Trusted community members convey basic health messages in urban slums and remote villages. Handwashing instructions save lives in communities where former vaccination teams distributed soap from door to door. Pakistan’s polio hotline doubles as a COVID hotline. Trained communicators respond to rumors and misinformation.
Coronavirus is hard on most of the world. It would be even harder on parts of Africa and Asia if the global movement to eradicate polio hadn’t gotten there first.
How is social shaming different from bullying? Though I find most folks friendly and courteous amid all the anxiety and frustration, social shaming is rampant online or in public spaces. It thrives in the moral certainty that we’re right and they’re jerks.
Does shaming change behavior? Perhaps, with large corporations whose business depends on public image, or people who violate the norms of those they care about. Individuals called out by strangers tend to get defensive, hostile, aggressive, and increasingly blatant. Sometimes someone gets shot.
Remember Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury (1981)? It enjoyed a brief popularity before we decided civil disagreement was a sign of weakness. This relic of a different era outlined a four-step approach to negotiation:
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.