The Badge of Shame

The stigma of coronavirus.

Posted May 26, 2020

Pixabay/cc Public Domain, free image
Source: Pixabay/cc Public Domain, free image

How can such a beautiful word conjure such negative connotations, not to mention fear and anxiety? “Corona” makes me think of a pretty girl, a smooth love song from the 1950s, or even a popular brand of beer. Not the fever-ridden, lung-inflamed, heart-stopping nightmare that it is.

“Corona” describes the aura around the sun that we on earth may observe through the miracle of modern telescopy. Were we to gaze at it directly, we could go blind. Looking at the novel coronavirus through a microscope, on the other hand, reveals a cell-like structure that has many points on its surface resembling blossoms. How could something so entrancingly beautiful bring us harm?

Not that such diseases are new. Plagues are nearly as old as recorded history. You may not have heard of the plague of Justinian (A.D. 541-42), but who among us has not heard of the Black Death of the Middle Ages, the Cholera outbreaks of the 19th and early 20th centuries or the “Spanish flu” of 1918?

Adults of my generation also recall the scourge of polio from our childhoods, unchecked until the 1960s, when a vaccine (thanks to the work of doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin) became available to the general public. We also recall the turning point moment in 1980 when the dreaded smallpox was eradicated from the earth. And more recently, the HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, and Ebola viruses—all contained with intensive effort and international cooperation.

Why then, were we so ignorant and/or complacent when it came to COVID-19? I’m not talking here about China’s lack of transparency, the bungled response of the WHO, nor even the CDC’s lack of preparedness and faulty test kits. What I mean is why didn’t we get it—that any “novel” virus (transmitted from animals to humans and highly contagious among ourselves) poses a threat not only to the country of origin but also to the world at large?

Surely, we knew that commerce is global, borders porous, and travel international before we (meaning Europe as well as the United States) began to think of how we might be affected? Trade and travel, even in the so-called “dark ages,” crossed geographic regions (irrespective of rulers, empires, religions, or ethnicities) with impunity. A virus or a strain of bacterium doesn’t care who you are, what you believe, or where you were born. It has a life and will of its own.

In the late 1940s, I was diagnosed with rheumatic fever, a disease for which there was no known cure. We now understand that rheumatic fever (which is caused by streptococcus infection) may be prevented by treating strep infections with penicillin. But there was no penicillin on the market then. I had two more episodes of rheumatic fever before I started taking this drug in the early 1950s, which prevented further recurrences. Today, if you live in a society and economy like ours, you may never have heard of rheumatic fever. But if you live in an underdeveloped part of the world you may still acquire this disease and suffer the kind of heart damage that frequently accompanies it.

In my own lifetime, I have seen (and benefitted from) major advances in disease control, including access to clean water; pollution abatement; antibiotics to treat bacterial infections; vaccinations for most of the routine diseases of childhood, such as diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (DPT); measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); and last, but not least, vaccines to prevent smallpox and polio. Life expectancy in the United States, as a result, increased from 48 years at the beginning of the century to 78 (76.0 for men, 81.0 for women) by its end.  

Growing up in this period of time, I believed that modern medicine could cure almost anything. Even my financial advisor calculates my lifespan as 90+ years. In contrast, all but one of my grandparents died in their 60s. They did not expect, plan, or hope for more.    

What has changed? A pandemic, affecting every part of the world, of which the United States (reputedly the most powerful nation on earth) has become the epicenter—with 30% of the world’s diagnosed cases and 28% of its recorded deaths.

In the face of this grim reality, President Trump has described our case count as a “badge of honor,” referring to our current testing capacity. He does not mention our death count, now approaching the milestone number of 100K. These numbers do not lie, nor can they be explained away.

We are all counting on a vaccine, hopefully by the turn of the year. Until then, the United States holds the world title for the “badge of shame.”