Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Thinking and Worrying: Polio, Coronavirus and Leadership

One thing about being under lock down because of the coronavirus:  you have time to do things and to think.  In my thinking time, my thoughts drifted back to the scare that polio put into the childhood of those of us who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's.

Specifically, I remember in the early 1960's, as a seven or eight year old, standing in line with my parents and brothers to receive our oral vaccine, developed by Albert Sabin.  Sabin had been to Cuba, and there he got the idea that the way to stop the virus was to inoculate everyone at the same time rather than waiting until they came to the doctor's office for a visit. Thus, the lines.

Because it was a live vaccine that attacked polio in the intestines and prevented the virus from entering the bloodstream, it was more effective than Jonas Salk's killed vaccine, which Salk had developed in 1955 and which had been widely distributed in the United States.  While the Sabin vaccine was widely distributed in many parts of the world, resistance to it by the March of Dimes and others somewhat limited its distribution in the U.S.

Still, my mother had us pretty much first up for it.  She was a worrier extraordinaire, and when it came to caution and safety measures, my mother made Ralph Nader to look like a lightweight.  My mother made my father install seat belts in our 1957 Plymouth the minute they were on the market.

She, along with every other parent in the U.S, was horrified by the pictures of children in huge steel iron lungs.  The picture of the 13-year old violin protegee Itzik Perlman lumbering onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 with braces and crutches was etched in her proud Jewish mother's mind.  The thought of a child getting polio was terrifying to moms of the 1950's.

I started wondering:  Given what we are now witnessing with the lack of tests, respirators, masks, and other vital equipment, could the United States marshal the kind of effort it took in the 1950's and early 1960's to quickly and widely inoculate an entire populace against a terrible disease?  Does the U.S. have the kind of leadership, the kind of cohesiveness, the kind of united sense of purpose that it takes to accomplish such an extraordinary feat today?

The United States had two very different kinds of presidents in 1955 and in the early 1960's.  The 1950's was Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, the Midwestern, seasoned, calm, understated commander, who had led the troops on D-Day.  When you think of Ike and his first lady, Mamie, words like dowdy, traditional, white bread come to mind.  But Eisenhower had a quiet determination, a steady hand that inspired confidence and trust.

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Thursday, April 9, 2020

I Was Wrong

On March 9th, I posted a piece in which I criticized the authorities in Israel for basically cutting travel off to the country by imposing a 14-day quarantine period for visitors. I opined that the authorities were overreacting and that there were effective alternatives to the extreme measure they were taking.
I minimized the danger of the coronavirus.

I heard from a lot of friends in Israel who, to put it mildly, said I was dead wrong, with an emphasis on “dead.” To summarize, they said that the actions taken were right for Israel because:

1) The coronavirus is much more easily transmitted than the common flu, and can result in a significantly higher fatality rate.

2) Israel is generally not a stop-off, but a final destination. Thus, it is relatively easy to quarantine the country.

3) Israel’s medical facilities are already strained. A deluge of patients needing acute care could overwhelm the country’s capacities.

4) Given Israel’s security situation, it must ensure that its military personnel as well as civilians, many of whom are called up to reserve duty when there is an imminent threat, are healthy and ready-to-go.

I was wrong. Given Israel’s unique circumstances and needs, a near-complete quarantine is possible and seems to be working, and the seriousness of the virus seems to have warranted such action.

A large concentration of the incidents of the virus are in the city of B’nei Brak and Jerusalem, which has a large Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. About 50 percent of the hospitalizations of victims of the virus are from the Haredi population, which represents about 13 percent of all Israelis.

Why the disparate impact and the concentration? Likely four reasons: 1) Some (emphasis on "some") of the Haredi leadership, and one influential rabbi in B’nei Brak in particular, initially refused to close synagogues, yeshivas, and other places where the population gathers. 2) The density of population and living quarters in many Haredi neighborhoods.  3) A lack of access to the Internet and other media outlets. 4) A general skepticism of and resistance to state authority.

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