Rhyming Through HistoryHuang Fellow Saajan Patel Parallels the Polio and COVID Outbreaks Amongst an Evolution of Race and Society
From iron machines and novel vaccines to stigmatization and misinformation – over time – history may not repeat but it will almost certainly rhyme. Inspired by Mark Twain, this theme was the focal point of Dr. Jeff Baker’s presentation on the history of pandemics: a trip back in time from the 21st century COVID pandemic to the 20th-century polio epidemic.
BETTMANN/MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES Left: a nurse prepares children for the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Right: Tyrone Valiant, 73, receives a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine outside the Los Angeles Mission on February 20, 2021.
Dr. Baker first opened with an analysis of the social determinants at the foundation of the polio epidemic. While polio did impact black and immigrant Americans living in crowded impoverished areas, it affected less crowded and cleaner suburbs the most. Rich white Americans, who were protected at a young age, were ironically more susceptible to paralysis or respiratory failure when they caught polio later in life. Therefore, similar to COVID, polio did not just impact historically marginalized communities. It impacted everyone, including those at the top of America’s social hierarchy, such as President Franklin Roosevelt.
However, while both COVID and polio demonstrate America mobilizing against dangerous diseases, this heightened awareness brought by their ubiquitous impacts represents a fundamental failure at the heart of American healthcare. We as a nation only care when our individual lives are at risk.
And when our lives are no longer threatened, we pretend as if the threat no longer exists, leaving America’s most vulnerable with society’s leftovers in its struggle to stay alive.
In both the COVID and the polio outbreaks, this struggle for representation amongst discrimination stood as a backdrop for the world to witness. While the polio outbreaks saw the murder of Emmet Till, the arrest of Rosa Parks, and the passing of Brown v. Board of Education, the COVID pandemic saw the shooting of Ahmaud Arbury, the murder of George Floyd, and the international recognition of Black Lives Matter protests.
Both moments in history stood at a critical intersection between science and society. A period of time where the sudden impact of a novel disease catalyzed the unraveling of a generational disease of racism and systemic marginalization.
Yet while Dr. Baker’s lecture is a warning that the current global pandemic is in dangerous tune with the past; he also reminds us that careful analysis of history may illuminate solutions that are invisible to the present. Founded upon the shortage of Iron Lung ventilators during the Polio outbreak, experts like Dr. Baker, were critical for creating a plan for rationalization of ventilators during the peak of COVID. Furthermore, in an attempt to confront vaccine misinformation, Dr. Baker suggests we look to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) during the polio epidemic – one of the greatest disease advocacy groups in history.
Through these many examples, Dr. Baker showed us the power of history in the context of medicine. Almost as important as a doctor’s scalpel, history is a tool used to shape our understanding of where we have come from, what we have done, and where we still have to travel. A time-traveling machine, helping us not only interpret the present but also predict the future. As the current pandemic fades into history, it is critical to remember the impact COVID-19 had on all our lives. Whether it is the passing of family, a reignition of Black Lives Matter Protests, or simply wearing a mask – just as after polio – our world will never remain the same. A forever changed stanza in a constantly evolving rhyme we call history.
Saajan Patel, Huang Fellow ’24
Saajan is a Trinity student from Cary, North Carolina interested in majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Global Health.