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What Historical Event Feels Like Today’s Crisis?

by Deborah Johnson
My daughter asked if the Covid-19 crisis is anything like the Vietnam War years when young men and their families waited to find out if they were drafted. Having lived through that era, I answered, ‘No. This is more like 1954 when there was no polio vaccine and each summer children would get what appeared to be a cold but would turn into paralysis or even death. In the little town where I was born, the numbers of children infected with the polio virus in 1954 and 1955 was catastrophic.
     All those baby boomers born right after World War II made for large families of four, five, eight kids all coming down with the virus, spreading it to their siblings and ending up with legs and arms in braces. The Salk vaccine could not come fast enough to save children who died in the iron lung. Many in my town thought the virus came from the pond near our house and stopped allowing their children to go swimming.
     My mother, a great swimmer herself, didn’t believe the myth, and so we swam there alone on the little beach through July and August. She must have been terrified as she watched families devastated by the disease. She took in children while their mothers went to hospitals to check on their affected children.
     I started first grade at five and each day our teacher would read out the names of the children. We each answered “here” when we heard our names, but two girls missed school for the whole year because of polio. One was luckier and had no obvious physical damage but the other had polio damage to her spine and had to walk with braces and crutches.
     I clearly remember waiting in the town doctor’s office with perhaps 30 other five and six-year-olds to get our first polio shot, the vaccine that saved so many lives. I wasn’t happy to be getting a shot but now, 65 years later, I can imagine how relieved my mother must have been, not just for the four children she had then but for the two more she would have later.
In 1960 my town and its neighbor formed a school region to build its first regional junior and senior high school. Our school was built on rolling meadows where cows has pastured. The hallways undulated but there were no stairs. Long before ADA the school was built with ramps so that the kids in wheelchairs and braces could get around.
     People are speculating on the future of the world after Coronavirus. If the impact is anything like what ensued with the polio epidemic in the early ‘50s, it will last longer than we imagine, it will change the way families interact, there will be a lot of uncertainty, confusion, and faulty reasoning. But we can also hope that there will be a research biologist somewhere who will find a vaccine that will save millions of lives.
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