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GUEST ESSAY: Fear and anger in the time of the pandemic

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I confess: I am afraid and angry.

I know I am not alone. Fear and anger are almost everywhere out there — because of the pandemic, of course. You too?

A look back into peoples’ historical reactions to past epidemics and pandemics is a bit reassuring. It makes clear that the miseries such terrifying events bring always make for those emotions. That is just plain usual.

In ancient times, fear and anger caused by a sudden disease outbreak were often channeled into the certainty that a god or gods were unhappy with a people’s behavior. Think of the Old Testament plagues, for example.

Interestingly, in those times, a people might blame themselves for whatever misbehavior must have provoked Divine Retribution. More often in history, though, another tribe was thought to bear responsibility for a plague. And on occasion, a people was right to think that. Consider, for instance, the decimation of the First Peoples of Central and South America, who were so nearly wiped out by what the Spanish brought: waves of measles and smallpox.

However, in most cases the “blame” is not based in truth, but is a venting of those understandable emotions onto a blameless “other.” The blame grows out of xenophobia, the fear and hatred of another tribe perceived to be foreign or strange.

There isn’t room here to provide many historical examples. But here are a few. During the great pandemic of influenza in 1918, the first described cases were actually identified in Kansas, yet it was called the “Spanish flu.” The Spanish were blamed because of the politics of the time, and they suffered the world’s misplaced anger as a result.

HIV was labeled the “gay plague,” although its original flourishing in Africa was overwhelmingly heterosexual. That label led to some gays being murdered.

During the years that Donald Trump was in the White House, it was common to blame COVID-19 on the Chinese: the “Kung Flu.” Anti-Asian sentiment generated in some quarters came to the point that Asians were killed.

Finally, COVID-19 is now being called a hoax by small but vocal factions. They are sure that the hoax is being propagated by a fantasied group of conspirators who are commonly imagined to be led by Jews. Another example of the xenophobia Jews have suffered for so many centuries — talk about lost lives!

The historical pattern is always the same: fear and anger generated in a catastrophe leads to blame by one tribe of another tribe who are already poorly thought of. This kind of blame is worse than irrational and useless; when it boils up, destructive conflict and death result.

And nations or races or religions or political parties are not to blame for these infectious diseases. Microbes are.

Mercy! What is the point of these destructive impulses, the discrimination, hating, murders? Nothing good is accomplished, only bad stuff. The miseries of life are ramped up, and the potential good that we as a human race could do if we only pulled together is ramped down.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has declared a State of Emergency because of what omicron is doing to us. Warren County has reported 320 new cases on Jan. 6, and 328 on Jan. 7. Both totals are more than twice the previous all-time daily record.

There are deaths in Warren and Washington counties nearly every day from COVID-19. The Glens Falls Hospital can’t admit patients for non-urgent elective surgeries. Medical offices are over-burdened. Some patients are not receiving necessary healthcare. Healthcare personnel here and everywhere are tired and frustrated and fearful and angry. Some are quitting in despair.

We are losing teachers in local schools. Some schools may have to go to remote teaching again, with all the burdens that will place on parents at home and on kids’ mental health.

Local businesses are suffering or closing. Bitter words and outrageous threats over mask and vaccine mandates are arising, although the mandates are designed to help the public health and minimize the pandemic. Everyone is wondering what is next — how much worse COVID-19 can get. A fearful situation … and anger provoking.

The scientific community has looked at the data and has come to the conclusion that this is a pandemic of a not-well-enough-vaccinated population. In mid-2021, 85% of the U.S. hospital admissions and over 85% of those dying with COVID-19 were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

With the so highly contagious omicron, admissions are now higher than ever in the pandemic, and the numbers include many more children. Among hospitalized kids, the percentages of unvaccinated are even higher than in adults. Epidemiologists think that similar inadequate-vaccine percentages are true for those who are infected but are not hospitalized, although that data is very hard to come by.

A good estimate is that your risk of becoming infected are 17-20 times greater if you haven’t been jabbed.

Considering that, it is obvious what “tribe” is doing the majority of the COVID-19 transmission. Yet some folks are proclaiming their rights to make their own independent choices in the foolish way of refusing vaccines, even though vaccines have been proven to be so amazingly good and safe ... so much safer than the disease itself.

This terrible omicron surge, while obviously not avoidable at this stage, certainly is modifiable — modifiable even now. If only…

You have probably realized by now that here am I: blaming my community’s, my nation’s miserable numbers and real misery on a group of people — the “others!” Yet these others are really my fellow Americans, my neighbors, my friends, and even my family — perfectly reasonable folks for the most part.

If only they would just be able to look at the data with us. If only we could discuss things reasonably. I am convinced that we could then come toward a common view, and that many more of us would then be vaccinated. With everyone’s help in that way, we could avoid many nasty sicknesses, save lives, and get back to normalcy much quicker.

What should I do toward this end? What should we do? I am thinking back on those peoples who took the responsibility on themselves for the Divine Wrath. With them in mind, I will close with two wise voices, one old and wise who has just died, one young and wise who is very much alive. Please read and absorb their words.

Richard Leakey, the great paleoanthropologist, looked at humanity’s evolution, writing: “As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long extinct species, many of which thrived for far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species.”

Yes, I say: we are in an existential crisis. All of us … the human race. We are being weakened by this pandemic in physical and moral ways. And we have another and really way worse crisis yet to deal with — the climate crisis. If we do better with COVID-19, we can certainly do better with global warming. That we must do.

Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in our history, looks at us in the present and tries to change our future, writing: “To be a family, a country, doesn’t necessitate that we be the same or agree on everything, only that we continue to try to see the best in each other and move forward into a shared future. Whether we like it or not, we are in this together.” Yes!

I am asking you to join me in pondering what is behind us and what can be before us. I am asking you to join me by reaching out to the “others.”

Oh, one more voice. Do you remember Pogo, from Walt Kelly’s delightful and incisive animal comic strip? Maybe you are too young. Anyway, Pogo parodied humankind’s forever tendency to create our own problems by saying: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

So there: the problem is identified, a vision of how we should deal with it is presented, as is a rough roadmap for how to. Now I am going to take a nap. What are you going to do?

Richard P. Leach, M.D., is an internist, infectious disease consultant and travel and tropical medicine specialist. He practiced in Glens Falls for 35 years, also serving as Glens Falls Hospital’s infection control officer and hospital epidemiologist. Retiring from private practice in 2011, he continued to provide travel medicine counseling at the Warren County Clinic until COVID-19 forced its cancellation. Warren County keeps him on as a medical director and consultant to the Tuberculosis Program. Dr. Leach is known for his role as co-founder and president of the Adirondack AIDS Task Force in the 1980s and 1990s, as the founder and president of the Glens Falls Medical Mission and its Project Guatemala in the 1990s, as the husband of Dr. Loren Baim, as the father of Christina Johnston, Timothy Leach, Molly Leach and Marta Leach, and as the grandfather of Rhone and of 3-week-old Thatcher James.


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