INDEX Sunday March 14, 2021
Sick times
When I was young, or younger, we used to have colds, flu and viruses (or bugs). You were expected to stay off work (or school) if you had the flu in order to reduce contagion. Colds lasted seven days if you looked after yourself and a week if you didn't. So most people went to work. Bugs and viruses were omnipresent, especially amongst hypochondriacs.

Every now and then flu became really nasty such as the 1957-9 epidemic, the Asian Flu and the 1968 Hong Kong flu. Each killed millions with at least 20,000 deaths in the UK in 1957/89 and 30,000 a decade later.

Infections included one I used to get pretty much every winter: URTI, or Upper Respiratory Tract Infection. Or, at least, I used to get it after they removed my tonsils. Prior to that I got tonsillitis.

Then there were the diseases of childhood: mumps, measles and the like. Years ago it was seen as the duty of parents to make sure their kids got these when they were young, because there were dark stories about what might happen to people who didn't get mumps until they were older (especially males). When I was very young there were even supposed to be measles parties, events where you could take your sprog to meet up with a child who had the contagion.

Teenage diseases included glandular fever, the kissing disease. There was a very beautiful young woman who got this at my school, but unfortunately I never got to kiss her to find out if kissing really did spread it, as they said.

Much more serious were things like TB (tubercolosis) and Polio. When my school vaccinated for the BCG (alleged to stop you getting TB) my mum said I probably wouldn't need it since my grandfather had the disease so I had probably been exposed to it. But they gave it to me anyway.

Although they expected to eradicate TB, it has made a come back in recent years.

Polio they did manage to get rid of, but it was a dreadful disease and those who had it (even mildly) suffered their whole lives long. I knew somebody who got it and then went on to be a model. She was a good looking, fit woman, but she died far too young.

Then there were some really odd epidemics like Mad Cow Disease, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. This was a truly dreadful disease for some farmers and threatened to become devastating for humans, when we learned of the related variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. But in the end few got it and it was more a question of fear than a real plague.

What all these diseases had in common was that we never blamed the government when we got them. And we did not expect society to be shut down in order to stop them spreading. In fact some said that exposure to a disease when young limbers up the t cells and reduces the chance of severe infection later in life.

Perhaps we are more risk averse today than in the past? But there are risks other than contracting a severe disease. For example, the risk that our society is becoming more authoritarian. When I learn that people are being threatened with on the spot fines for taking part in legally sanctioned demonstrations, it makes me feel powerless and angry.

Quite clearly, the government could have transformed dozens of now shut department stores into cottage hospitals and trained a new army of basic medical practitioners to staff them, for a fraction of the money it has wasted on test and trace. These are bleak times.
Posted by Jonathan Brind.
Sunday March 14, 2021