Whose brother or sister?

February 23, 2014

“’This isn’t the drug user of the 1970s. It’s your brother, your sister. It crosses all socioeconomic strata.’”

This is a quotation from “Max Sandusky, prevention and screening director for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod” and it comes from an article in The Boston Globe called “Opiates taking heavy toll on Cape,” by Brian MacQuarrie, dated February 22, 2014.

Years ago when a child in one of our sons’ nursery school class died from strep, and a few months later our son came down with scarlet fever, just two days after having been examined by his pediatrician, someone important in the public health sector in the state government told my husband that nothing would likely be done about what was going on in the nursery school until the child of somebody important died.

It was pretty clear that someone in the school was a carrier — there were many strep cases at the school in addition to Jillian’s and our son’s — but no testing could be undertaken, nor could the staff member who seemed to be the carrier be asked to take steps to protect the children.  As I recall it, she had a connection to the health sector, perhaps through a second job, and the hypothesis was that she picked up bacteria at the facility but didn’t become ill from them.  And if it wasn’t she, then some sort of testing of everybody might have revealed a different pathway through which there was such an on-going and severe presence of strep in the school, even after vacation breaks.

In other words, it wasn’t just a single event during which children passed strep germs to each other;  and the public health official knew that.

We withdrew our child and found a new school for the fall.

There’s that set of lines from Richard Shindell’s song “Transit” about how “car thieves and crack dealers, mobsters and murderers [are someone’s] husbands and sons, fathers and brothers.”

When we are still picking and choosing whose lives are more and less important, we cannot yet congratulate ourselves on being “superior.”  It’s a paradox, resolved, it seems to me, by withdrawing the ego and no longer seeing the world in terms of competing groups.  We become “superior” (in the sense of “more elevated,” not in the sense of comparative elevation to others) by realizing that we are not.

We may pay more attention to an important public health problem now that more “important” people’s lives are involved, but we will not be resolving a more fundamental problem, and its manifestations in our society, until we stop with this “four legs good, two legs better” (Animal Farm, by George Orwell) attitude.


5 Responses to “Whose brother or sister?”

  1. James Koppel Says:

    The conflating of a contagious disease with a personal self- destructive choice is delusional. Furthermore, one’s perception of the bad behaviors enumerated above as belonging to “others” is a valid and sometimes necessary self-defense mechanism.

  2. Jeff in New Jersey Says:

    I do not agree that “a child of somebody important would need to die” before anything could be done.

    While laxity and indifference by public officials is often seen, a free society provides usable remedies: Newspaper investigations, powerful law firms, and private detective agencies. A good private detective agency could, with the help of a knowledgeable doctor, assemble enough affidavits to support a lawsuit against the suspected carrier. Then, in course of discovery, a well-known doctor with proper credentials could testify, and court-ordered medical testing could be done. It would be difficult for a judge to refuse this, as the test would also “establish innocence” if negative, and the lawsuit could then be dismissed.

    Of course it would be necessary for one or more citizens to take the lead, assemble a “war chest” of money for expenses, and make the necessary connections.

    We must remember that citizen responsibility has also declined in the past fifty or sixty years. Any small group of responsible citizens could take initiative in a case of this kind, and a responsible newspaper, recognizing that their concerns were not frivolous or illogical, would give support in the form of suitable publicity.

    Sometimes these things do not need to go very far. Even when just beginning, the carrier would get the word and might quietly withdraw from the school.

    • Diana Moses Says:

      My point was that the state apparatus that exists to deal with this stuff would not get involved and even went so far to say that it would take the death of the child of someone (more) important to get that to happen.

      • Jeff in New Jersey Says:

        I do not believe that, Diana. It was only one person who said this — a probably indifferent, job-safe and salary-assured bureaucrat with no interest in putting pressure on anybody.

        In many government departments, the way to survive and “get along” is to keep a low profile. Hence the fatalistic attitude. Nod your head and then do nothing. The remedy when there is not enough pressure within is to bring pressure from without. Even state politicians, venal as they so often are, will sometimes take a ball and run with it.

        Had I been in the situation you describe, I would have gotten together with three or four other parents of children affected and would have paid a collective visit to the state senator or representative for the district where this school was. If the case was properly presented by someone with good speaking ability who had mastered the facts, the politician might have needed to make only one telephone call to someone likely to heed his words. Politicians love to be able to show even a small group of responsible citizens that they can “get things done.”

        Mary Mallon, or “Typhoid Mary,” became notorious after dozens had died from her good-quality cooking. She moved from family to family as a cook until finally tracked down. So this is not a new, baffling, or difficult to comprehend situation.

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