Saturday, September 25, 2021

Thoughts on Getting My Annual Flu Shot


In the above photos from the 1918 flu pandemic, on the left a Seattle streetcar conductor checks to see if potential passengers are wearing the required masks; on the right, a New York street sweeper wears his mask. The admonition of the New York Health Board to wear masks to check the spread of influenza epidemic in 1918 was: "Better ridiculous than dead."

There was no vaccination available against influenza back in 1918, but thankfully there is now. I first remember getting a flu shot back in 1967. I have gotten them more or less regularly ever since. It has become a kind of regularly repeated end-of-summer, early autumn ritual, its importance highlighted by the one's increased susceptibility and the flu's increased precariousness as one ages. 

The routine of getting vaccinated against the flu every fall fits into a uniquely modern expectation that science can save us from deadly diseases which were once quite commonplace and against which the world once offered little practical protection. I am old enough to remember when polio was still a real threat. I myself, like most of my generation, suffered as a child through measles, mumps, and chickenpox, afflictions against which, thankfully, subsequent generations are able to be protected by vaccines. 

Against this background, the sudden emergence of covid-19 was quite the shock - a contagious, easily spread, serious, and indeed deadly disease, against which we had no known protection. We all remember how frightening those initial weeks were, while we struggled to adapt to mask-wearing and physical distancing as the best we could do to hide from the disease. Unfortunately, that also meant in effect hiding from one another - a poignant reminder that we are very social animals, that our fulfillment and flourishing as human beings depends on society, but that society is a fragile attainment, quickly compromised by natural forces beyond our immediate control.

Reacting to the plague that attacked ancient Athens around 430 BC, Thucydides observed:

At the beginning [of the plague] the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. In fact mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick. Nor was any other human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.

A lot has changed since the fifth century BC, but Thucydides' description could, with only modest modifications, have been written in the spring of 2020. Particularly poignant was his portrayal of what happened to the precious human ritual of funerals: All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could. Such was my own family's experience, when my mother died at the very beginning of the pandemic period. We planned my mother's funeral in the usual way, adhering to my mother's personally stated desires. Then, all of a sudden, everything had to be cancelled. A full 15 months would pass before we would finally be able to assemble as a family for her burial. It wasn't what we had planned - or what she had planned - but, as Thucydides said centuries ago, we buried the dead as best we could.

Salvaging social life from the catastrophe of the pandemic will be an ongoing challenge on many levels. 

Every flu season is different, and so no one knows at this point in time exactly what to expect this season. Some years the flu season seems mild - like last year, when, of course, we were all wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. Some years we're not so lucky. After all the horror covid-19 has visited upon us, let us hope and pray we're lucky this year!

No comments:

Post a Comment