WITCH curses and spells, prophylactics, quack cures, superstition, good money after bad … there’s not much we won’t throw at disease and pain.
Occasionally, science gets it right, even if peer review can be a pain. Just look at Lancet’s hydroxychloroquine study fiasco and the good folks at Surgisphere who won’t let their data be scrutinised.
But this sort of proper rigour, shortcomings notwithstanding, has never stopped humans from dreaming up their own breeds of fancy.
Injecting disinfectant is right up there with corpse medicine, dung treatments, skull-licking and mummy powder. Nothing like a bit of trepanation, either — boring holes in your head — to release evil spirits. Or leeches to balance the humours.
Ultimately, though, we’ve had to learn to live with a lot of nasties, super-bugs — as we might have to with COVID-19.
You reckon we’d be used to it.
After all, wasn’t so long ago we had scarlet fever, pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea and syphilis to deal with daily. Polio and TB too, even pregnancy — not that it’s a disease. All without a net too; no vaccines, no antibiotics, no Pill, no cures.
Still a good few nasties around today, of course, in addition to coronavirus. Malaria, ebola, no shortage of cancers.
And there are plenty more that will carry you off inside 24 hours if you’re not on to them straight away — meningococcal, meningitis, dengue fever, MRSA, the flesh-eating bug, septicaemia …
So we live with lots of threats. We always have. I don’t mean to discount it — I know plenty of atrisk, immuno-suppressed elderly and co-morbidity folks — but living with COVID-19 does makes us look pretty OCD in comparison to our response to all these other threats.
We’re scrubbing our paws every time we touch a staircase, doorknob or a shop counter, even if we’re protesting at close range in our thousands.
Maybe not that different to things like hygienic libraries to guard us against TB, which we had not so long ago.
Fear’s nothing new.
When people learned about bacteria, and worried about transmission by books, private libraries started sterilising their books with formalin vapour. Bit on the nose but presumably effective.
I wonder if it messed with your immune system like all the antiseptic glop we’re lathering on these days. Or the blue light of the devices we’re so much more glued to, reading, listening to and watching every misinformation thought-bubble out there, and which is messing with our melatonin levels and circadian rhythms.
Took in a lecture last week by Federation Uni’s David Waldron on witch marks, hidden household objects, hexafoils, hagstones, burn marks, soot symbols, hinge crosses, demon-traps, witch bottles of urine, hair and nail clippings …
The array of anti-pain and antievil folklore to be found in your average 19th century weatherboard house was really quite extraordinary. Not unlike many a medicine cupboard these days, though.
Think birth cauls sewn into purses and shirt collars, cat sacrifices buried under foundation stones, pentacles, dreamcatchers to ward off bad thoughts, concentric circles, Holy Trinity triple-line marks everywhere. No ingress or egress point was ignored: doorways, windows, chimneys, corners. And everyone was at it — masons, carpenters, stablehands, cunning men and women, snake-oil spielers and loads of everyday people.
Our propensity for ingenious, and loopy, ways of warding off disaster is admirable. Their propensity for efficacy? Yeah, no. Not so flash. What I’m saying is don’t hold your breath waiting for a COVID vaccine. No one can promise one. And if we get one, who’s to say the virus won’t mutate? It’s already accused of doing so. The flu vaccine needs updating non-stop.
Interesting to note how Howard Florey landed himself a Nobel Prize for his antibiotic work, but was accused of assisting a population explosion — at the time deemed “one of the most devastating things that the world has got to face”.
Vaccine or not, you won’t find Xi, Trump or Putin — certainly not Bolsonaro — accused of assisting any population explosion. They’re not that irresponsible.
So, a curious fact: It might have been sequestered by COVID-19 this time around but, 100 years ago, football — ie, the old VFL — managed to play a couple of grand finals though the Spanish flu pandemic.
That’s something. Not that Geelong won anything, though. It was all South bloody Melbourne and Collingwood. Not really a great omen.
If you believe that kind of stuff.
This article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser 15 June 2020