Balancing rights and responsibilities, the search for social grace in the age of social distancing.
Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Mary. She was a cook in private homes in New York and New Jersey in the early twentieth century. She had quite the reputation as a cook, her employers were particularly fond of her ice cream recipe. When she left one place of employment, her next employer would be the beneficiary of her art in the kitchen, their dinner parties having a special new sparkle. Around 1907, after there had been severe typhoid outbreaks, the health authorities of the region traced the chronological path of sick and sometimes dying patients to the employment history of Mary Mallon, coveted cook, incubator of typhoid fever, aka Typhoid Mary.
Mary was confined to a sanitarium for a few years, later released with the agreement that she would not seek employment as a cook. She broke that agreement. Shortly after taking on a new position as a household cook, another outbreak of typhoid fever was traced to her. Mary was permanently housed in a state facility until her death.
We remember Typhoid Mary to this day because who doesn’t love a good catchphrase or a scapegoat? Maybe your family lost loved ones to cholera, typhoid fever, or the influenza of 1918. Is there a favorite aunt, or uncle your parents remembered, who is still missed?
To live in a society of humans, agreements and compromises are made, rights and responsibilities are balanced. The old adage, that you don’t get a traffic light at an intersection where drivers speed through just because they can, until someone gets killed, is right on target today. There have been people dying here at home and around the world, of an infectious disease that groups have spread by gathering in their busy activities, just because they can. Government has to and will continue to step in, take action, and impose rules. Because it has to, that is the role of administration. Rights can be argued all day long, but if they do not come with responsibilities, rights are meaningless.
In the history of public health in the USA there are many diseases that were mysteries, which when solved resulted in protest against the solutions. Inoculations have been protested since they were first used in the colonies in the early 1700s.
Laws against spitting in public, written in the last 100 years and beyond, are on the books to this day because we understand how different diseases…