James Farmer

LEGAL COMMENTARY

Pandemics

Friday, November 12, 2021

I have so far resisted the temptation, engaged in by so many, to express (at least in writing) an opinion on the Covid situation.As an Aucklander, the latest, continuing Lockdown has become increasingly frustrating, especially with a border being erected around the district preventing travel within New Zealand to add to now long-standing deterrence from travelling outside New Zealand given the impediments against returning.  The arbitrary MIQ lottery system is now, rightly, the subject of legal challenge and the anomaly of those with Covid being able to self-isolate in their homes while the fully vaccinated returning to New Zealand are required to endure forced detention in MIQ facilities has, again rightly, attracted derision and scorn.

There have been comparisons drawn with previous pandemics in New Zealand – Spanish flu in 1918 (9000 deaths) and the Polio epidemics of 1916 (123 deaths), 1925 (175), 1932 (39), 1948-1949 (65), 1952-1953 (80), 1955-1956 (79).   From the beginning of the 60s, vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin eliminated poliomyelitis (or infantile paralysis as it was also called) from New Zealand although there have been times since when parents have had to be reminded of the need to vaccinate their infants.

The 1948 polio epidemic was one that I still recall.I was inflicted with polio myself and can still remember the feeling of total helplessness from being unable to move and the subsequent period of several weeks as an inpatient at Auckland Hospital in a large ward of other children similarly inflicted, followed by 3 years of rehabilitation as an outpatient 3 days a week.   The schools did not re-open at the beginning of 1948 until after Easter.  Given that similar feature of our Covid lockdowns, it is interesting to see the cartoon showing a harassed young mother with baby in arm while she vacuums the house and 2 other children sitting at the kitchen table doing school work: https://ngataonga.org.nz/blog/sound/1948-polio-epidemic/

The effects of polio could be and often were permanent - wasted limb muscles leading to crippling or limb deformity, damage to the muscles that control breathing requiring patients to be placed in an ‘iron lung’ for months or even years, a machine that mechanically stimulated the chest muscles to aid breathing.   I have to say though that, fortuitously and fortunately, I somehow avoided those permanent or lasting disabilities.

However, for many, apart from any physical disability, polio has continued to have other lifetime personal and social effects.   There is in fact a recognised medical condition known as post-polio syndrome (PPS) that may arise anywhere between 14 and 40 years (or longer) after recovery from polio and that is thought to have been latent throughout that period.   It is medically viewed as a disorder of the nerves and muscles and can lead to new muscle weakness, pain in the muscles and joints and fatigue.

This has been the subject of a new book written by Jan Wills-Collins, The Hidden Scars of Polio.  The book is self-published and able to be purchased from her at jan.wills@xtra.co.nz.  It is her memoir from the time that she, aged 11, and her sister (aged 2) both contracted polio during the 1952 epidemic and were hospitalised at Palmerston North Hospital.  As she says in the Introduction, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered memories of her personal experience with polio (as, I guess, it has also with me). 

Her story is truly one that disturbs, particularly in terms of the effects it had on her mental health, caused in part by the stigma that many in society attached to those who were or had been victims of the illness – after returning to school, being made to sit at the back of the classroom as far away from the other children even though she was no longer infectious, other children at the school refusing to socialise with her.   Eventually, the boys did allow her to play marbles with them, a game at which she proved to be superior to them.   This provoked a visit from the nuns of the school to her parents to express concern at the fact that she was spending time playing with the boys!

She did go on to make a successful and rewarding career as a nurse but in later life has experienced pain and difficulties in her joints and muscles including extensive arthritis.  Her balance has also been affected, leading to falls, two hip replacements and sleep deprivation and at times anger.  She concludes, reasonably enough, that what she calls the hidden scars of polio may be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.  She refers to PPS and compares this with reports of New Zealanders who have been cleared of the Covid virus after a period of infection being subject to continuing debilitating symptons.   The Mayo Clinic and others have certainly identified what is sometimes called long-Covid which may result in continuing breathing problems, heart complications, chronic kidney impairment, Guillain-Barre syndrome and even strokes.

All of that suggests that there are lessons to be learned from earlier viral illnesses – an obvious enough statement in general – but in particular in relation to long-Covid.

The conclusion to Jan’s book includes this passage:

“Polio was the epidemic of my era, and now the world has COVID-19, the impact of which may have fallout for our children and grandchildren, but only time will tell.

As with the macro effect of polio – the ‘Hidden Scars’ – I wonder what, in many years to come, the mental impact of COVID-19 and its subsequent fallout will be.  What our statistics will reveal with thoughts of a possible increase in stress and stress-related problems, domestic violence, financial difficulties, job loss, and marital breakups.”

There is perhaps this difference.  The effects will be similar but sitting alongside long-Covid there will surely be long-Lockdown.

 Jim Farmer

11 November 2021

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