I hope this note finds you well.
In these uncertain times, the short sentence above takes on far more significance for me. I am writing this piece after seven weeks of sheltering-in-place. Our Governor is in the process of beginning to cautiously loosen the reins on civil society in Arkansas. Arkansas schools were shut down for the spring semester to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This pandemic has been (and continues to be) an existential threat to many of our most vulnerable citizens.
We have been encouraged to use common sense, to maintain social distancing, wear masks and wash our hands. I have watched as our local and state-wide leaders have maneuvered through this cloud of uncertainty. Our leaders were faced with a dilemma: if they did not respond early enough, they could rightfully be accused of not doing enough; if they were too aggressive, they could be accused of overreacting. I, for one, am impressed with the measured, reasonable response of our Arkansas leaders in this crisis.
It is important to remember that this is neither the first nor the last time that we will facea menace like COVID-19.
The year 1541 was the beginning of a dark period for the native peoples of Arkansas. De Soto described a large, vibrant, well-organized chiefdom culture estimated to be from 75,000 to 350,000 strong. Over the next two centuries, repeated epidemics of foreign diseases decimated these peoples and their social structures.
In the 1800s, Arkansas faced Endemic Fevers. Initially, residents lacked effective remedies for these illnesses because they did not understand their causes. Eventually, they discovered that malaria and typhoid fever were at the root of the problem. tThe town of Benton began down at the end of River Street at Saline Crossing. But as the settlement grew it moved up the hill—away from unpredictable flooding, mosquitoes and malodorous air (Mal-air or malaria).
But certain troubles come with the territory. As settling became more widespread, violent epidemics of smallpox, cholera and yellow fever plagued the state. Except for the smallpox vaccine, the one truly effective strategy for any of these illnesses was quarantine.
In the fall of 1918, the Granddaddy of pandemics struck the world. The novel Spanish Flu hit in a series of waves around the world killing twenty to fifty million people; in Arkansas, 7,000 died.
The mid-20th century saw repeated epidemics of paralytic polio, with iron lungs filling the hospitals of Arkansas. Schools, churches and swimming pools were closed; the citizens were encouraged not to gather in groups.
In the last 20 years, Seasonal flu outbreaks, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Swine Flu, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and Ebola have threatened us. They have been stopped, in large part, because of massive coordinated efforts of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
There are some similarities between the Flu of 1918 and our present menace COVID-19; perhaps there are some lessons to be learned.
Have a good journey and be safe,
Dr. Sam Taggart is a retired doctor/ writer/ marathon runner in practice in Benton for the last 35 years. He recently published The Public’s Health: A narrative history of health and disease in Arkansas, published by the Arkansas Times. His two other books, With a Heavy Heart and We All Hear Voices are available at your local booksellers or online at Amazon.com.