History, History Column

To ‘Heed’ or Not to ‘Heed’…

by ©2021 Sarah Becker

To ‘Heed’ or Not to ‘Heed’…

“There are errors in our National Government which call for correction,” George Washington wrote on May 18, 1786. “Ignorance & design are difficult to combat. Out of these proceed illiberality, improper jealousies, and a trail of evils…[T]o be so fallen!—so lost! is really mortifying.”

The American Heritage dictionary defines illiberality as “obedience to one’s opinions or prejudices; narrow-mindedness, lacking tolerance or breadth of view.” Today’s dilemma: after two years of medical suffering—of living with the COVID-19 pandemic—many Americans still refuse to get vaccinated, to pay heed to vaccine need.

Economists define a public good as a good that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous; where no one can be excluded from its use and where the use by one does not diminish the availability of the good to others. Classic examples include clean air, clean water, and national security. Nobel prize-winning author Paul Samuelson confirmed such in 1954. The common good is that which benefits society as a whole; something—like mass vaccinations—that can only be achieved through a mix of political procedures and the collective of citizen participation.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society suggests that public goods are things that “must be provided for everyone if they are to be provided for anyone, and they must be paid for collectively or they cannot be had at all.” Health, generally, is not considered a public good. Public health however is “inextricably linked to government action and the provision of public goods.”

Public health, as illustrated by herd immunity [Smallpox, Tuberculosis, and COVID-19] represents a collective benefit from which no one is excluded. Yet in September, 2021, Representative Jim Jordan [R-OH] called “vaccine mandates un-American;” implying founding father George Washington opposed compulsory vaccinations. I would have thought a winning wrestler with a Masters’ in education knew better.

Smallpox symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, backache and deep-seated rash. Young George W. contracted smallpox at age 19 while traveling in Barbados and—for that reason—became immune. To vaccinate is to introduce an antigenic substance intended to boost immunity.

Martha Washington received her small pox inoculation on May 23, 1776, in Philadelphia. General George Washington ordered the American military vaccinated on January 6, 1777. He concluded “we should have more dead from [smallpox] than from the Sword of the enemy.”

“[T]he smallpox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way,” General Washington said. “I have therefore determined, not only to inoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order [Doctor] Shippen to inoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia.” Those who opposed General Washington’s small pox initiative shared the unfounded belief the British had militarily infected the American army.

Lastly, the Colony of Virginia again passed a Bill concerning Inoculation for Smallpox on December 27, 1777.  On Gov. Patrick Henry’s watch: “Whereas the Smallpox, at this time, in many parts of the Commonwealth is likely to spread and become general, and it hath been proved by incontestable experience that the late discovery’s and Improvements therein have produced great Benefits to Mankind…Be it therefore enacted…that any person…conforming to the following Rules and regulations may Inoculate or be inoculated for the smallpox…Every person willfully endeavoring to spread or propagate the smallpox, without Inoculation…shall be subject [to] the Penalty of five hundred pounds, or suffer six Months imprisonment without Bail.” In 1777, 100,000 North Americans died from smallpox.

“[General] Washington’s unheralded and little-recognized resolution to inoculate the Continental forces must surely rank among his most important decisions of the war,” historian Elizabeth A. Fenn wrote. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state’s right to mandate smallpox vaccinations in 1905. [Henning Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905)]

According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, author of the 7-2 opinion, liberty does not exist outside of law. It is “regulated by law…There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good…This court has more than once recognized it as a fundamental principle that ‘persons and property are subjected to all kinds of restraints and burdens in order to secure the general comfort, health, and prosperity of the state…Even liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is not unrestricted license to act according to one’s own will. It is only freedom from restraint under conditions essential to the equal enjoyment of the same right by others.”

Arguing the freedom to carelessly infect another is downright selfish. “When we are young, and sometimes when older, we fail to appreciate the importance of good health and what it takes to preserve it,” Benjamin Franklin said. “It is, by far, much easier to preserve health than to regain it.

Smallpox was wholly eradicated in 1979. In 1793 Alexandria’s Superintendent of Quarantine inspected incoming ships to prevent the spread of yellow fever. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie died of typhoid fever and during the Civil War more soldiers died of diarrhea than battle wounds. Coincident with the Civil War, beginning in 1861, Louis Pasteur developed his germ theory of disease.

“Pasteur formulated the principles of immunization of disease and showed that infections may be prevented by introducing into the system a serum of attenuated virus,” The New York Times wrote in 1922. “He showed how to prevent and to control infections in all living things—man, animal, and plant. Pasteur planned a disease-less world and he advanced structural work on it.”

Infectious diseases are caused by living organisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and parasitic worms.  Disease occurs when cells in the human body are damaged as a result of infection. The different diseases spread by direct contact; via vectors like the mosquito; airborne droplets, or contaminated food, water and blood.

The Spanish flu slowed the First World War, and in 1918 in Alexandria, Virginia, “expectorating [spitting] on sidewalks” became punishable by law. “The influenza outbreak of 1918 began in the spring with the novel H1N1 virus passing from birds to humans,” history of medicine professor Howard Markel said. “In fact social distancing was one of the great historical lessons learned.”

Whether it is today’s enclosed air traveler, George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence, or an 1880s milk-drinking American citizen someone somewhere is newly infected with the tuberculosis bacterium (TB). Tubercle bacillus is an infectious agent that spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and the airborne contaminant is inhaled by another located nearby. It is also spread by drinking unpasteurized, contaminated milk.

In 1882 German bacteriologist Robert Koch proved that tuberculosis was “caused by a parasite,” not by heredity as others assumed. “If [Louis] Pasteur’s culture experiments have led to the discovery of a method by which the poison of splenic fever is rendered harmless, and the disease prevented by the timely inoculation of the modified virus, may we not hope that the time is not distant when the ravages of [tubercular] consumption will be prevented by the inoculation of a modified bacillus?” The Washington Post asked in 1883.

“That tuberculosis is contagious and that it is transmissible from human beings to animals or vice versa are among the statements on which the members of the [first International Tuberculosis] Congress were substantially agreed,” The Washington Post continued in 1888. “The practical identity of tuberculosis in the case of men, women and cattle is now acknowledged.” The cattle type accounted for approximately 10% of all cases of human pulmonary tuberculosis and 100% of all human cases involving organ damage.

By 1900 untreated tuberculosis was the country’s leading cause of human mortality, with a death rate of 194/100,000. More than a century later, in 2015, 1.8 million of the world’s people died from tuberculosis. Only 2% of those with multi-drug resistant TB receive proper medication.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease that continues to spread: at home and worldwide. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure. They include: cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, and or new loss of taste or smell.

Thankfully effective COVID-19 vaccines now exist. Rather than respond enthusiastically, many Americans still sit unmoved preferring to debate their worthiness. The result: only 59.22% of the U.S. population is wholly vaccinated.

According to Gallup “Republicans today are much less likely than their predecessors in 1975 to have confidence in science.”  As of August 8, 2021, “97 Republicans in the House of Representatives would not say publicly if they had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Asked if he was worried about the COVID virus spreading or mutating…Representative Madison Cawthorn [R-NC] blasted the Biden Administration’s plan to go door-to-door to urge Americans to get vaccinated. ‘They could then go door-to-door to take your guns. They could go door-to-door to take your Bibles.’”

Alternatively, Representative Don Beyer [D-VA] has introduced a bill, the Safe Travel Act “to require all domestic travelers to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test at airports or for Amtrak trips.” The 2021 uptick in COVID-related “passenger aggression and violence” is astonishing.

“There is no ‘credible religious argument’ against the COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” Texas mega-church pastor and Donald Trump [R-NY/FL] devotee Robert Jeffress agreed. “Christians who are troubled by the use of a fetal cell line for the testing of the vaccines would also have to abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection.”

Religious exemption letters are little more than a ‘loophole’ to avoid getting a vaccine,” Jeffress said. Many religious leaders share Jeffress’ view. The Anti-Defamation League condemns those who compare pandemic restrictions and or vaccination mandates to the Jewish holocaust. Pope Francis launched a “powerful appeal for people to get vaccinated with approved COVID-19 vaccines” in August, 2021. He called the vaccination “an act of love.”

Fortunately YouTube has agreed “to crack down on the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation; to ban anti-vaccine videos from its platform.” It seems the misinformation disinformation campaigns have now spread to vaccines in general. To related medical problems including pregnancy, child birth, developmental disabilities and cancer.

“I am sure the Mass of Citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters…[S]erious misfortunes originating in misrepresentation frequently flow and spread before they can be dissipated by truth,” retiring President George Washington wrote in 1796.

Conspiracy theories are not new. Such schemes date from the presidential election of 1796, candidates John Adams [F-MA] and Thomas Jefferson [DR-VA] especially. More recently Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) chastised the Chairman of his State’s Finance Committee for the October, 2021 release of their dis-informational document, The Vaccine Death Report.

Loaded with conspiratorial inaccuracies Sununu asked for the Chairman’s removal. The Report falsely claimed “that living organisms with tentacles are entering people’s bodies through COVID-19 vaccines [and] nanotechnology in the vaccines will be used to control people’s thoughts through 5G.”

The first U.S. COVID-19 case was reported on January 21, 2020. As of November 12, 2021, the number of reported cases had climbed to 46,855,488; the number of American lives lost 759,678!

Economics is the study of choices. Choose wisely and begin the New Year properly vaccinated. Vaccinations are more than “an act of love.” They are a gift, to you and all you hold dear.

Enjoy the holiday season.  Safely, please!

About the Author: Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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