The Spectre of Polio

Photograph Source: CDC Global – Polio Vaccination | Egypt – Public Domain

“On polio, we simply cannot roll the dice,” said Dr Mary T Bassett, the New York health commissioner a week ago. In July the first polio case in nearly a decade was identified in an unvaccinated man in Rockland County in upstate New York. Governor Kathy Hochul has now declared a state of emergency to control the growing outbreak of a disease that used to be called “the Crippler” and which mainly struck at young children.

It is a measure of the fear caused by the recurrence of polio that there has so far been only one case, but the virus has been detected in 57 samples of sewage. A full-scale epidemic is unlikely because of the vaccine that was developed in the 1950s. I have a personal interest in this because I caught polio in one of the last epidemics in western Europe in Cork in 1956 and was disabled by it. In 2005 I published a book about the epidemic in Cork and more generally about the spread of the disease in all countries.

It is sometimes compared to the Covid-19 epidemic, but it carried a greater charge of fear because the victims were mostly young children and not the elderly. In an epidemic in New York City in 1916, cats were suspected of spreading it and 72,000 were hunted down and killed. Towns in Long Island and New Jersey sent out deputy sheriffs armed with shotguns to set up checkpoints on the roads to turn back cars carrying children under the age of 16. Memory of this terror evaporated swiftly after mass vaccination, but it would not take much to bring it back.

Below the Radar

Almost everything published in Britain this week has some reference to royalty, so as my contribution I have been trying to think of jokes by or about the Royal Family. The only mildly funny one I have ever heard about the late Queen is that she would refer to a Lady Ross, whom she considered vulgar, as “Lady Roscommon”, after the Irish county of that name.

More amusing is a story told about her grandfather, George V. At the height of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, it was suggested to him that, in keeping with his government’s austerity policy, he should make some economies by cutting the number of his domestic staff. “Perhaps,” proposed a royal advisor, “his Majesty might consider getting rid of his second pastry cook.” “Good God,” replied the King, horrified by the suggestion, “a man can’t do without his bun!”

Cockburn’s Picks

Here is an interesting study suggesting that Liz Truss cannot recreate the populist alliance which enabled Boris Johnson to win the 2019 general election. Some 79 per cent of Leave supporters voted Conservative at that time, but today the polls show that this figure is down to 45 per cent. Increasing friction with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol would not work as a tactic to reunite the Leavers because few voters in Britain care about what happens in Ireland, north or south. Truss may instead rely on the traditional Conservative vote, but the problem for her here is that a large majority of Conservatives favour increased government spending over tax cuts.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).