Last week I had a frustrating exchange with an acquaintance over the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.
He'd posted on social media a meme with the gist that there'd been so much waffling and we're-not-sure-ing by the medical establishment that you couldn't trust anything they said. I guess he'd seen me post something just a few minutes earlier and knew I was online, because shortly afterward he DMd me.
"I've been waiting for you to jump in with your two cents' worth," he said.
I guess I was in a pissy mood -- and to be honest, anti-vaxx stuff does that to me anyhow. I know about a dozen people who've contracted COVID, two of whom died of it (both members of my graduating class in high school), and in my opinion any potential side-effects from the vaccine are insignificant compared to ending your life on a ventilator.
"Why bother?" I snapped at him. "Nothing I say to you is going to make the slightest bit of difference. It's a waste of time arguing."
He started in on how "he'd done his research" and "just wasn't convinced it was safe" and "the medical establishment gets rich off keeping people sick." I snarled, "Thanks for making my point" and exited the conversation.
London in the nineteenth century was a seriously disgusting place to live, especially for the lower classes. Sewage was dumped into gutters along the street; it then ran down into the ground -- the same ground from which residents pumped their drinking water. The smell can only be imagined, but the prevalence of infectious water-borne diseases is a matter of record.
In 1854 there was a horrible epidemic of cholera hit central London, ultimately killing over six hundred people. Because the most obvious unsanitary thing about the place was the smell, the leading thinkers of the time thought that cholera came from bad air -- the "miasmal model" of contagion. But a doctor named John Snow thought it was water-borne, and through his tireless work, he was able to trace the entire epidemic to one hand-pumped well. Finally, after weeks and months of argument, the city planners agreed to remove the handle of the well, and the epidemic ended only a few days afterward.
The work of John Snow led to a complete change in attitude toward sanitation, sewers, and safe drinking water, and in only a few years completely changed the face of the city of London. Snow, and the epidemic he halted, are the subject of the fantastic book The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Cities, Science, and the Modern World, by science historian Steven Johnson. The detective work Snow undertook, and his tireless efforts to save the London poor from a horrible disease, make for fascinating reading, and shine a vivid light on what cities were like back when life for all but the wealthy was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (to swipe Edmund Burke's trenchant turn of phrase).
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