Saturday, March 28, 2020



Ironically, the elderly said to be the main worry in this pandemic are survivors of a time when quarantines were as common as flu in January.
In the day, you worried about many threats. I am one of the growing demographic of old farts who remember the gauntlet of pestilences that could lay you low (sometimes six feet down) before the wonders of antibiotics and such miracles as transplants soothed the world 60 or 70 years ago and made more of us live past the Biblical three score years and ten.
Before Salk vaccine ended the parents' dilemma of whether Johnny should go to the municipal pool in case polio lurked there to put him in an iron lung
Before people thought twice about going to the doctor, and suffered, because there was no OHIP.
Before inoculations and vaccinations and idiots who attacked the simple flu shot.
As Steven Pinker documents in stunning detail in his bestseller Enlightenment Now, the world has improved tremendously in every possible way in the last decades. Our history is filled with mass death, whether it is the Asia of the terra cotta warriors, the grim verses of the Old Testament, or the dark centuries when we're not too sure just who died of what.
The good old days basically weren't. Then along comes this pandemic which is a savage echo of the past.
Margaret Atwood in an article in Saturday's Globe recalls her girlhood when warning posters were carried in that black bag by every family doctor to be tacked to the front door of the latest victim of a  host of diseases that would quarantine you for 14 days at least, from varieties of measles and poxes to scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps, diphtheria etc.
If you were lucky, it was just tonsillitis.
Atwood is several years younger than me and she didn't spend all that time in Toronto but what she described would be familiar to many of us who were around when Toronto staggered out of war.
My father had a huge medical practice around our big home near Gerrard and Greenwood which like most GPs' homes in those days had a waiting room and office and a sign that lit up with the street lights. Quarantine signs were stuffed in his bag beside a cornucopia of cures, some of them mixed himself.
Dad drove a big car, usually with an assortment of neighbourhood kids in the back who went along gleefully for the adventure of the ride and the candies he also had in the bag. He didn't worry about more minor stuff spreading because he believed in getting all that over ASAP. He moved my two sisters and me into the same bedroom to make sure we all got the mumps before it would be really serious.
Dad died the March before the Second World War, exhausted from a flu outbreak, the normal burst of late winter sickness, and his work as chairman of the Toronto school board. It was then an important position, so all the schools got the afternoon off for his funeral.
My uncle kept the practise going so there was a Dr. Downing in the area that once was called Toronto East for more than 50 years.  He regarded the flu as a deadly enemy. My father had put him through medical school at Western but Lou headed first to Saskatchewan. He was the only doctor in Lanigan where a street is named after him. He was also the only dentist, pharmacist and coroner for the area. Of course the Spanish flu almost killed him because he could never rest. It took him six months in Vancouver to end his exhaustion and recover his health.
After I was orphaned, I ended in Chesley with grandparents who avoided the two doctors in town because they couldn't afford visits. (I remember spending summer nights with a feverish head pressed to cool linoleum to endure an ear infection which cost me the upper range.) I suspect that Dr. Morgan wouldn't have charged them because he, like my father and uncle, were used to not being paid. And in the 1930s and 1940s, even in Toronto, some payment came only in chickens, sausages and gratitude.
The middle decades of the last century were a magic time in medicine even for those of us flummoxed by the huge changes. Yet doomsday fears persisted, some times verging on hysteria, about polio and even blood transfusion since the great curses of health were so hard to cure.
For example, the western world doesn't think much about tuberculosis these days, even though it is said that TB killed 10 million in the world in 2018 and every immigrant still has to pass the test, but 60 years ago mass X-rays for TB were common.
 In the first year of what became Ryerson University, every student went through the preliminary testing by the Gage Institute on the campus. Suspicious results meant that you went for a larger X-ray and physical exam at the Institute itself.
To my surprise, I had TB and the Gage recommended to my family doctor that I go to the enormous complex which has been converted to the West Park rehab centre since the need for sanitariums has ended that brought thousands of patients to Toronto and Hamilton and other cities from every nook in the country.
Fortunately my uncle was that doctor and decided my being a patient for months in a sanitarium was not necessary because I was in great shape, even playing on a championship football team. So I dodged that bullet but for years carried a special card with my Gage number, like many other pensioners.
There is one health menace from the past that is still around us, possibly in the ravine in which you like to walk. We don't talk much about rabies now, even though it is said to have killed 59,000 people just last year, but then it did that in far off  places, like Africa.
We used to have epidemics among our wild life, which was front-page news because if you were bitten by a rabid fox or skunk, you had to have 14 painful shots in the abdomen even before the test on the brain of the dead animal was finished because no one wanted to take a chance on what could be a fatal bite.
I was the rabies expert as a kid reporter for the lamented Toronto Telegram, possibly because I brought a passion to the writing. On the way to the streetcar one morning on a downtown street, I was attacked by a squirrel. I suppose it was a funny sight, me jumping in the air, the squirrel snapping at my ankles, then me running over to the curb and bringing up because I had had a fermented evening. But it was as deadly serious as stepping on a rusty nail before tetanus shots.
So there it is, rabies, not something we talk about in Canadian urban centres (fortunately the treatment is now much easier) but last year it killed more than double the number of victims claimed by this pandemic by March 28.
I was an enormous reader as a boy and the accounts of the great plagues over the centuries always fascinated me. I had the occasional nightmare where the chant would be "bring out your dead." The idea of bodies rotting in the streets because no one would collect them horrified me. Yet Black Death killed nearly 50% of Europe and devastated China. There were villages in Quebec during the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919 where no one survived to do the burying. One estimate said it killed 10% of the world.
Thank heavens, I thought in my boyish naiveness, those days have passed. But have they?
I had a cousin working at what was then called the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph. He got sick while treating a horse in distress. It is hard to know real details because what were said to be the authorities ordered him buried the day he died before his family could even gather.
Such a thing couldn't happen in Ontario, I said, as I tried to find out what really happened. But it did, and the whisper was that it was the plague, which they say still sticks a skeletal fist around a few throats from time to time.
But, you say, that's just a horror story with a rural twist. It couldn't happen in a big city. But it did, to a stalwart woman who worked with me and was one of those fun-filled good reporters who are an asset to any newspaper. Her boyfriend was a lawyer who worked with one of the famous families. She died, like my cousin, suddenly, and was ordered buried within hours because, it was hinted, she was killed by the plague.
No, no, you say, this is the stuff of a bad horror movie. The plague really doesn't exist, does it? According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there are seven cases of plague death each and every year, and apparently I worked with one and had another victim as a cousin.
So bats hanging in undiscovered caves are now the sword of Damocles hanging by a hair over our heads and world health. No wonder I have the same feeling about pandemics as I do about that Biblical language about war and the rumours of war always being with us.
 Now it's pandemics and the rumours of pandemics.
 And all we can do is to try to reduce them to epidemics.

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