Bob Schwartz

Now it’s children: Is this the polio moment for covid?

The story of polio in America has been relevant since the covid pandemic began.

Polio is a highly communicable virus that can cause irreparable damage to the central nervous system. Most famously in American history, it was the disease that handicapped President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a handicap that was hidden from the public but that was an open secret among all who knew him.

Polio had been managed into the twentieth century. But by the 1950s America was suffering with a polio epidemic—an epidemic that predominately affected children, leaving them with lifelong weakness in their limbs, or in iron lungs to help them breathe.

Frantic projects to find a vaccine eventually yielded results. Two types were developed: the dead-virus vaccine Salk and the live-virus vaccine Sabin. Unfortunately, unlike the strict review and manufacturing process we have today, vaccine review then was not stringent enough to catch one harmful bad batch of the live-virus vaccine. Still, the vaccines were overwhelmingly safe and effective.

More than that, parents who had been scared every single day that their children would get polio were beyond relieved. They rushed for vaccinations, which then became a regular part of required public health. Today, polio has been eradicated. Still, the immediate and long-term suffering it caused can’t be erased.

Recent reports are that covid hospitalizations among children are increasing in frightening numbers (one New York children’s hospital reports a 500% increase in one week). So it is time to ask those who have chosen to forego behaviors to reduce the spread of covid: If not for yourself, or your neighbors, or strangers in your community, what about children—your children, their children? Seventy years ago, parents stood in long lines to wait for a vaccine shot. What are you waiting for?

PBS American Experience produced the episode The Polio Crusade.

The first part:

The complete episode.

Don’t Look Up: When we overlook poor entertainment quality for ideology we are in trouble

Don’t Look Up is now the #1 movie on Netflix. It is the work of Adam McKay, a good comedy writer and director, creator of such gems as Anchorman (2004), a gently absurd satire of 1970s TV news that is loaded with laughs.

Don’t Look Up is not loaded with laughs, according to about half of its reviewers. To be more precise, reviews fall into three categories:

1. Sorry, but this is an unsuccessful attempt to deal with big issues. It is supposed to be a satire, but the laughs are few. A wasted opportunity.

2. This is a worthy attempt, and the results are mixed but mostly on point. Thank you.

3. Brilliant. The Academy award buzz is deserved.

What are the big issues that the movie employs so many big stars to satirize? Rejection of science (climate change, covid), social media, useless news, stupid political leaders, visionary self-serving billionaires, citizen lemmings, all in the context of the world literally ending.

Every single one of those issues deserves astute attention and analysis. You can do it seriously and didactically, and there is plenty of that. Or you can take the route of satire, which writers and filmmakers have long done. If, for example, you haven’t ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, go ahead, finish the last few paragraphs here, and watch it.

Reviewers in all categories, even the most negative, sympathize with McKay’s anger about these targets. Good intentions, even in art, should be applauded. But when we allow good intentions to distort our view of outcomes, we are hampering our ability to achieve our goals. Whether it is artists or leaders, sympathy with ideology is not nearly enough.

Every single problem McKay takes on in the movie deserves deep attention. With all due appreciation for his talents, maybe someone else will come along with a better big picture satire (or maybe nobody can or should even try to take on all of these in one film). That said, it is near certain that he will be rewarded with many award nominations and probably some wins. But if viewers, critics and awards voters don’t quite understand the cliché that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, they should consider it.