There have been several epidemics in my lifetime – among them SARS, Ebola, AIDS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu – but here I will mention only those that, though they did not make me ill, in one respect or another changed my life.
The first was polio. When I was a child there was as yet no vaccine and polio was ‘endemic’ – it came every summer, bringing disability and death in its wake. I have a cousin who caught polio as a small child; it left her with a paralyzed leg, and game and enterprising though she always was, in her 70s she is now in a wheelchair. My own direct exposure to polio was in a long-ago Vermont summer when my little sister and I were campers and our mother a ‘psychological counsellor’ at a rather flaky and eccentric camp run by fellow European refugees, the summer camp that inspired my novel The Ghosts of Summer. Near the season’s end, our pool was temporarily closed for cleaning, and for swimming the camp sent us to the municipal town pool. A few days later, a boy at camp became suddenly very ill. One of my room-mates, Dotty, who was his ‘girlfriend’ (in those innocent days all this meant for pre-teens was that you were partners at the camp square dance on Saturday night) sneaked into the sick-room to visit him and sat down on his bed before she was sternly ordered out.
The next person admitted was my mother. Seeing the poor boy attempt to drink cocoa, which at once came back out through his nose, she guessed what was wrong with him – and that quarantine would be imposed next day, as soon as the expected doctor had come. My mother, who had lost three babies out of five, was taking no chances on the remaining two. Dotty and I were told to secretly collect our things and go around midnight to my mother’s room. A taxi took us to the station – my mother, sister, Dotty’s mother and me – and we went to stay with friends of Dotty’s family in Connecticut. What only Dotty and I knew and did not mention was Dotty’s sick-room visit. We were quite possibly bringing polio with us.
Dotty’s mother’s friends had two children of their own but seemed quite unconcerned about our germs, though Dotty and I both developed slight fevers in the following week, which might well have been light polio cases. We will never know. Among the quarantined campers left behind, three did come down with polio. One was left paralyzed. Dotty’s boyfriend died.
We never went back to the camp. Already disliked by the town which mistrusted foreigners, especially German speakers, the camp was blamed for the town’s own polio cases, and it moved to Massachusetts. From then on we rented houses in Vermont, together with friends, and eventually bought one. Far from being persona non grata with the camp directors, my mother continued her friendly relations with them. The school she later founded in Detroit was run by members of the progressive but scatter-brained family.
It was only I who ever felt vaguely guilty for jumping the quarantine.
The next epidemic I remember well was cholera, in Turkey in 1970. We had lived there on and off for several years, first going to climb mountains and then to hole up and write, and lastly because my husband was commissioned to write a Turkey guide. His book was nearly finished and we were thinking of a Greek island for the winter when cholera arrived – it was said, from Bulgaria. In Istanbul, the first sign – our flat overlooked the Bosphorus – was a Bulgarian ship flying yellow flags; the flags that for centuries struck fear into hearts at international ports.
Cholera is curable if treated in time; the critical thing is to keep the body from dehydrating. Farther East, cholera was frequent, but Turkey had had no cases in about 50 years and the medical profession was at first at a loss how to cope. We had cholera vaccinations – luckily, if I remember rightly, the vaccine soon ran out. Istanbul was flooded with rumours, among them that one person afflicted was the cook at the Hilton. Newspapers published horror stories; villagers who had found jobs in the metropolis rushed back to their villages. We stopped going to restaurants but continued to socialise with friends.
Winter in Greece was no longer on the cards, and my ever-anxious parents sent money for our three-year-old daughter and me to fly back to Austria, where my late grandmother’s empty villa was our temporary European base. My husband had to stay on as the borders were closed to motor traffic and he could not abandon his Land Rover, vital for his work.
When our daughter and I arrived in Vienna, we had just enough money for a train to upper Austria, for which we were too late. In a shared taxi I blurted out our woes to a friendly man who turned out to be an opera singer, performing that night and staying in a posh Vienna hotel. He immediately offered to share his room with us. At first (being then the kind of young blonde who is subjected to stares and whistles) I was a little suspicious; but he assured me he didn’t at all mind sleeping on chairs and my daughter and I would have the bed.
And that was how it was. We set off for Gmunden in the morning after a luxurious and peaceful night. Kind opera singer, I don’t remember your name but you are not forgotten and have my eternal thanks.
My husband arrived safely in Austria some weeks later but without his almost completed manuscript – the briefcase holding it disappeared during intensive customs searches at the Bulgarian border. Fortunately he still had his notes and the book was only delayed a few months, but as the commission was a lump sum payment it had to cover those months as well. Our winter was spent in the freezing cold villa on the Traunsee and – here again lucky – we were able to get a small Istanbul flat from departing friends in the spring.
Cholera in Turkey did give rise to some cases in Western Europe, Italy, as I remember, being the worst affected. I don’t know how Italian health services were then but one UK tabloid published an article by an English tourist who did get cholera and was treated in an Italian hospital. Her tale of horror was front-page stuff. However, as cholera spreads only through food and water, with decent hygiene and sewage systems European cases remained few, and this epidemic was soon forgotten.
Then in 2000, when I was living in Cornwall, came Foot and Mouth. All movement of cattle was banned, and Europe banned imports of British meat. Foot and Mouth is a livestock disease not fatal to cattle who generally recover, but EU and British regulations demanded the slaughter of all animals affected. This is not universal; some countries opt for vaccination and testing. The Blair government went for a policy of ‘contiguous slaughter’; the killing of not only infected herds but all others within – according to many experts, an unjustifiably wide – distance of the sick ones.
The results were appalling. Rare breeds did get some exemptions but many carefully bred and beloved herds were wiped out, perhaps never to be replaced. By August 2001, over five million animals, most of them healthy, had been slaughtered. Killing on such a scale could not be anything but cruel; and the loss was devastating to many farmers and those whose jobs depended on them. Others also suffered; the corpses were burned in giant pyres, creating pollution, dioxins, and a fearful stench. Some commentators observed that the policy favoured large farms which got generous compensation, while destroying many small ones, and that it may have been inspired by sheer brutal economics; after recovery cows are less productive.
Tourism was hit as well, not least in Cornwall. The summer before the epidemic, friends of mine had embarked on a promising project, an ecological English language school, with a program including nature walks, WWOOF-ing, etc. I was to be one of their B&B hosts. The first three students I hosted, one Spanish and two Swiss, were easy and very interesting guests. Two I saw again later and could I have seen them more, would have become friends. I looked forward to many more such summers. Then, with the cattle disease, footpaths were closed, volunteer farm work out of the question. The school could not afford to lose two or three seasons. My friends soon moved up-country and went on to other careers.
And now there is Covid which affects us all, with its cancellations and lockdowns and, of course, its deaths.
In four epidemics, what have I observed? First, the unexpected should be considered and prepared for, and is not. From the camp directors who might have thought that sending a hitherto mostly isolated group of children to a municipal pool in polio season was asking for trouble, to the Blair government whose failure to control cattle movements early and insistence on the gruesome, wasteful and destructive contiguous slaughter policy, authorities show themselves wanting. It was only good fortune and not good sense (remember that famous picture of John Gummer feeding his daughter a hamburger?) that we were spared what would have been the worst epidemic of all, CJD, or Mad Cow Disease, which humans can get from infected meat. CJD is a formerly rare illness which began to spread when sheep offal was incorporated into cattle feed. The huge number of cases feared did not, mercifully, materialize; but among my newspaper clippings from that time is a heart-breaking list of 80 deaths from that incurable and lethal premature dementia; they were aged 15 to 54.
We violate natural barriers at our peril, and we don’t learn; just as we don’t learn that ever leaner public services, penny-wise and pound-foolish, leave us when emergency comes, as it does, and there is no slack – spending infinitely more than we saved; just as we don’t learn that our globalized, giant corporations, rapid-turn-around economy with its intensive farming and vast movements of goods, animals, and travellers is out of tune with nature altogether.
So now there is Covid. Have we learned anything? Or will we? I leave it to the reader to guess.
Volume 35 no 3 January – February 2021