My daughter had been strict about the rules, but more to avoid spreading covid than to avoid getting sick from it. Given the data, she was right. U.S. children have accounted for only 1 to 3 percent of reported covid hospitalizations and 0 to 0.2 percent of covid deaths. Covid-19 has so far killed 355 Americans 18 and younger, compared with more than 450,000 people 65 and older. Even if my daughter had gotten covid, the chance that it would have killed her was somewhere between none and infinitesimal.
What would it have felt like if instead we had spent a year fearing for her life?
Intellectually I reject the idea that children are more precious than adults. Politically I object to the use of children as rhetorical tools. But emotionally? If I had thought my kids were at substantial and lethal risk from covid, I would have spent the past year terrified. Not bored, confused and vaguely anxious — terrified.
Instead of insisting on a six-foot distance between friends who gathered in our yard, I would have locked the door and loaded the .22.
Even the fear I felt for my own parents’ safety wasn’t the gut-twisting terror I would have felt at the prospect of my children’s death. Sorry, folks!
But it’s true, and they know it, because they were children in the polio era.
My parents were 7 in 1952, when the polio epidemic reached its peak, infecting nearly 58,000 Americans, including one of my father’s sisters. She was 4 years old. She was bedridden for a year, then went on to a wheelchair, then crutches, then a lifetime of moderate disability.
Pre-vaccine polio wasn’t usually fatal; it killed fewer than 2,000 Americans a year. But polio targeted children, so much so that it’s known as “infantile paralysis” (and also: “The Crippler,” like a supervillain). A 1956 newsreel shows images of children in wheelchairs as the voice-over intones, “Parents lived in fear of polio’s sudden attack and the tragic aftermath.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s polio Web page describes a mid-20th-century mood of “widespread panic.”
In Montgomery, Ala., where my father grew up, the news reported the polio case counts and deaths. It listed canceled camps and Sunday schools; it noted diminished attendance at sporting events. It also featured copious ads for polio insurance and one that even pitched a new television set as a weapon against disease: “FIGHT POLIO. Keep Your Children at home and entertained.”
The mix of dark facts and light features, plus the unseemly flourishing of pandemic capitalism — it was just like now in many ways.
But one story feels very different. In late June 1953, Montgomery County undertook a mass inoculation campaign — not with the Salk vaccine, which was still two years from general use, but with gamma globulin, a substance made from blood plasma that was thought to confer some temporary protection against polio.
The campaign began on a Tuesday. The front page of the Montgomery Advertiser carried a boxed announcement: “White or Black. Have You a Child 9 Years Old or Under? Turn to Page 3-B. The Map Shows You Where to Take Your Child. TODAY THRU FRIDAY. For the GG shot that will save it from Crippling Paralysis.”
My father remembers an unfamiliar school and a shot that really, really hurt. My aunt — the younger sister of the one who was paralyzed — remembers trying to run away.
In four days, 800 volunteers inoculated 32,948 children. Dr. Daniel G. Gill, the state health officer of Alabama, later wrote, “We believe that the coverage approached 100 percent.”
With almost no notice, every single child under 10 was taken to the correct place on the correct day for a treatment that, as the paper explained in a front-page Q&A, didn’t always work but “may provide some protection against paralysis.”
Question 5: “Is GG a cure for polio?” Answer: “No.” And still, 100 percent participation.
So far that year, just 81 Montgomery County residents had contracted polio, and three children had died. And still, 100 percent participation.
Today — with more than 575,000 Americans dead — there are vaccine resisters and anti-maskers and politicians who egg them on. That’s already incredible. But if covid victims were mostly children? It would be inconceivable.
In other words, if more children had gotten sick, fewer Americans would have died.