Category Archives: education

A Wise and Good Man

Not long ago, I saw on Facebook a picture of Captain Kangaroo in his costume, with a silly expression on his face. The caption was something on the order of “Who in his right mind would put this man in charge of a bunch of children?”

Well, I would, for one. It’s easy to take a photograph of anyone that presents an unflattering portrait, and if that person’s job is to be a children’s entertainer and to have ping-pong balls dropped on his head, he’s even more likely to look goofy.

The reality is quite different. Captain Kangaroo may have acted goofy, but in real life, he was far from it.

I had heard that Bob Keeshan (the Captain’s not-so-secret identity) was an advocate for children, but I never realized how passionately and compassionately until I had the chance to interview him, many years ago, when I was the editor of Early Childhood News magazine. (The accompanying photo is a souvenir of that occasion, resurrected from a single frame of film that somehow survived both the tornado and all our moves. My husband found it and I found a way to digitize it. If Mr. Keeshan looks tired in the photo, it’s because he had just finished giving one of his impassioned speeches. But I digress.)

Keeshan was a friend of fellow children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), and they occasionally guested on each other’s shows, spreading their message of gentleness, care, and fun with widening audiences. After Captain Kangaroo was pushed into an unfavorable time slot, the show was picked up by PBS and ran for a number of years there.

Keeshan began his crusade of child activism while he was still The Captain to innumerable boys and girls, including me (I was particularly fond of the puppet character Bunny Rabbit because it wore glasses like I did). But Keeshan learned that there was a horror movie involving an evil Santa Claus, and that commercials for it were being shown during children’s shows, including his own. He objected and made his voice heard.

After he retired, Keeshan became a tireless child advocate and speaker. He stood strongly against violent video games, which he noted taught children nothing about the real world, and particularly against children’s shows based on those same video games or on violent toys, like “Power Rangers” and “The Transformers.”

But Keeshan’s crusade for children’s rights didn’t stop at the other side of the TV screen. At the speech I attended, he said that many run-away kids should really be called “throw-away” kids for how families and society failed them. Unfortunately, neither my clips nor my notes of my article have survived, so I can’t tell you exactly what he said, just that he said it with fervor and sincerity. And sometimes quite a bit of anger.

In lieu of the article, I offer some Bob Keeshan quotes taken from other sources over the years.

Back in the old days, when I was a child, we sat around the family table at dinner time and exchanged our daily experiences. It wasn’t very organized, but everyone was recognized and all the news that had to be told was told by each family member. We listened to each other and the interest was not put on; it was real.

Generosity has built America. When we fail to invest in children, we have to pay the cost.

Children don’t drop out of high school when they are 16, they do so in the first grade and wait 10 years to make it official.

I enjoy meeting not only contemporary children, but yesterday’s children as well. It’s nice to talk about the experiences we shared, they tell me, “You were a good friend.” That’s the warmest part.

Now, how goofy does that sound to you?

Starstuff

Carl Sagan has been damned as a popularizer of science. Carl Sagan has been praised as a popularizer of science. Since the first time he put on his corduroy jacket and turtleneck to introduce the masses to the wonders of the universe in his ground-breaking TV series Cosmos, he has been many things to many people (and associated with the phrase “billyuns and billyuns”).

So. Is being a science popularizer a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a bad thing if you expect a scientist to remain in the lab and conduct research, without wasting her or his time appearing on Johnny Carson. It’s a good thing if you think science needs to be popular for society to survive.

That Sagan appeared on Carson’s show was not a fluke. Rather than being the epitome of an obsessive researcher, Sagan was an enthusiast and a promoter of science who could, at the same time, entertain as well as he explained.

Sagan was in the news a lot, too. He was the one that insisted that astronauts who had been to the moon be quarantined for a period to make sure they had brought back no alien germs. He was the one who demolished the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, famous for his book In Search of Ancient Aliens, which purported that alien civilizations have visited Earth and left their mark on ancient astronomy, archaeology, and biblical studies. (Every year when he was teaching astronomy at Cornell University, Sagan devoted one whole lecture to debunking Velikovsky.)

Sagan’s astronomy class was swamped with auditors (particularly on Velikovsky day). To be officially registered for Sagan’s Astronomy 102 class, you had to sit through Astronomy 101, a deadly boring class taught by a deadly boring professor. (I had the great good fortune of taking Sagan’s class, and met him at department parties.) His teaching was compelling and his tests were far from regurgitating dry facts.

Sagan’s particular field barely existed: astrobiology. Since life has never been discovered on other planets, there wasn’t much to say about it, though he could, and did, do experiments on what circumstances and elements needed to be present for life to arise out of the “primordial soup.”

He memorably said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” He was also famous for “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge” and “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

Carl Sagan is now present on Facebook, despite the fact that he’s been dead for some years. Most of the quotes attributed to him are on the subjects of today’s culture of stupidity (though he didn’t live long enough to see how thoroughly correct he was), the lack of science education in the US (or at least rigorous science education), the dumbing-down of popular culture, and the need for both scientists and people like him to make science accessible.

Many of the Facebook quotations are influenced by the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was required reading in his astronomy class, though it had nothing to say about astronomy. Instead, it was a work that denounced what came to be known as pseudoscience, such as belief in ghosts and witchcraft.

Losing Sagan was a profound blow both to science and to making science available and understandable to the masses. Others have attempted to carry on his work as popularizers of science, notably Neil deGrasse Tyson (who had a part in the “Is Pluto a planet?” debate) and Bill Nye (The Science Guy). Tyson has even starred in a reboot of Cosmos, though nothing can rival the fascination of the original series.

Neither one, helpful as they may be to the science-ignorant, has stepped into Sagan’s loafers as a teacher, a public figure, a prescient philosopher of science, an inspiration. I miss the heck out of him.

Learning Things

This is a poster I have in my study. Lately, I have begun thinking that what it really should say is “That’s what I do. I read books and I learn things.” To put it simply, I wouldn’t know things if I didn’t learn things. And now I think the learning is perhaps more important than the knowing.

I had a course in grad school that was called Research and Bibliography. (We called it R&B.) We did the usual things you do as an English major – write papers about assorted literary figures, mostly. (I once did a paper on William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. I referred to it as my “Willie and Wally” paper. But I digress.)

The final exam, however, was not an essay test or another sort of normal academic exercise. It was, in essence, a scavenger hunt in the university library. Each of the seven or so students had her or his own personal set of questions and had to find the answers. The trick was, you had to know where to find the answers, not so much what the actual answers were. Each set of questions could be answered using the same reference books (this was before computers were available to anyone except the librarians), and students were allowed to point each other to the correct ones.

For example, a question might be “When John Milton used the word pandemonium, how long had it been part of the English language?” (Trick question: Milton invented the word. It means, literally, “all the devils.”) The answer could be found in a reference book called the OED, or Oxford English Dictionary. Another student would have a different question that also required using the OED. And you could say, “you’ll find that in the OED.”

In that case, the test was not at all about knowing the answers to the questions, but knowing – or learning – where to find them (something that we should have learned from writing our papers and bibliographies).

There are different types of learning. My husband learns mostly by visual means, absorbing information through television documentaries, for example. Some children learn their letters and numbers best by drawing them in a sand tray or fingerpainting them. For a while, these multiple styles of learning – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. – were a major influence on education, and teachers were encouraged to use a different style if a child wasn’t learning through the one that was normally used to teach. (They may still be. I haven’t done textbooks in years.)

So. I read books and I know things – but only because I learn them. I was reading a book about mountaineering, for example, and came across the word salopettes. I could tell from the context that it was an item of clothing, but I just had to learn which one. A quick Google and I learned that salopettes are to the French (and mountain climbers) what bibbed overalls are over here (only, presumably, down-filled instead of denim). It’s a completely useless thing to know – I can’t imagine it being useful even on Jeopardy. But it was fun to learn.

Of course, I’m not putting down reading or knowing. For me, reading is what comes before learning, and knowing is what comes after. And, for me at least, both are pleasurable occupations.

I wrote about learning a while back, and this is what I said about it:

I count a day when I don’t learn something new as a day wasted. I love it when I’m able to start a Facebook post with TIL (Today I learned) or “I was today years old when I learned that….” Learning is all around you. You just have to reach out and grab it!

That’s still my philosophy.

Say What?

athalete Sh! Cherokees!

When I was a college student (approximately 100 years ago), I was an English major who also dabbled in linguistics. I can’t say that my liberal arts education left me with many skills that led to high-paying, prestigious jobs, though I never ended up flipping burgers. (I was a cashier in a restaurant, but that was while working my way through school).

But my education has left me with a few things that I treasure: a compulsion to read, a desire to write, skills for editing, and a nearly uncontrollable desire to correct people. I gave up on being a Grammar Nazi a while back, because I sensed it wasn’t conducive to making friends, and a lot of the old “rules” (like not splitting infinitives) make no sense anymore.

What I haven’t been able to shake, though, is a cringe when someone mispronounces a word. Ath-a-lete. Nuc-yul-ar. Foil-age. I’ve corrected my husband on that one so many times, when he’s reading seed catalogues to me, that I swear by now he’s doing it on purpose.

Once I even called up a radio station because the news announcer said Bo-GOH-ta instead of BO-ga-ta. Aside from my husband, though, I’ve given up correcting people’s pronunciation unless they ask me to.

(This actually does happen. A former boss of mine was talking about an article he read and was talking about a sarcophagus. He must have seen me wince, though I tried not to show it. “Is that how you pronounce it?” he asked, and I then enlightened him. (This incident indicates not ignorance on his part, but the fact that he had only ever seen the word written and was guessing at the pronunciation. But I digress.))

One of the common words that still makes me cringe is how people pronounce “chipotle.” Almost invariably, they say chi-pol-tay instead of chi-poat-lay. This is actually an understandable mistake, as there are few words in English that include the sounds tl together in that order. To get it, you have to smash two words together, like “hot links.” That’s easy enough to pronounce, but when the combo shows up in the middle of a single word it seems baffling.

I also dabbled in Russian in college. Among the peculiarities of the Russian language – and there are many, including the Cyrillic alphabet – is that there are letters that stand for more than one sound at a time. It’s like in English, where the letter z can stand for regular z (as in zip) or zh (as in azure). But Russian carries it to the extreme. They have one letter that stands for the sound ch, and another one for sh, and yet another one for zh.

But they don’t stop at that. There is even a Cyrillic letter that stands for four different letters in English: shch. (It looks kind of like a small w with a tail on the end.) The letter is useful (for Russians, anyway), as it occurs in the word for cabbage soup and the name of the Soviet Union’s former head, Nikita Krushchev.

When my Russian instructor was trying to teach us this sound, he had us repeat the phrase “fresh cheese.” That was about the only place in English where the sounds occur together naturally. (You can think of others, like “fish chips” or “harsh chimps,” of course, but those are harder to remember.)

One day I was explaining this to my husband, rather pedantically, I expect, and I said that there were no English words that had the shch sound at the beginning of a word or a phrase. He looked pensive for a moment, then got a smile.

“Sh! Cherokees!” he said. I surrendered. I was defeated. By a man who still says “foilage.”

Living in a Post-Pandemic World

No, settle down. We’re not there yet.

You’d think with all the CDC mask roll-backs and the number of vaccinations you see on TV, that the whole national nightmare is over.

Well, it’s not.

We have not reached “herd immunity.” Herd immunity occurs when so many people in a population have been vaccinated that the virus has no place to go. Various estimates state that between 70% and 90% of the US population must have been vaccinated in order for that to happen. The US population is 382 million (give or take). Only 36% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and not quite half have received the first dose. I’ve done the math: that means to reach herd immunity, approximately 2/3 of the people in the US still need to be fully vaccinated. That’s over 250 million. We’re nowhere need herd immunity.

Sorry about all the math, but it’s important. Just because the CDC or your state government or whoever lifts mask and social distancing and sanitizing restrictions doesn’t mean that that’s a good, sensible thing to do. Why do you think states are offering incentives varying from a free beer up to $1,000,000 for folks to get vaccinated? It’s not because they’re comfortable with the numbers who already have.

The United States embodies a philosophy of rugged individualism (also one of not having paid attention in math and health class). But it also has a philosophy of helping one’s neighbor. Right now the rugged individualists are ahead. Those who refuse to wear masks put themselves in danger of contracting COVID. But, perhaps more importantly, they put at risk those who cannot take the vaccine for health reasons, especially the elderly and immunocompromised. And we’re talking here about real health reasons, not the phony-baloney fake “I’m exempt” cards that you can print up yourself or order off the internet.

(My husband, who works at a store greeter, meets many of these people every day. He says he’s always tempted to ask them what that medical condition is – rhinotillexomania? The store won’t let him. But I digress.)

It’s sad to think that so few Americans are willing to be in the “helping their neighbors” camp. Some are certainly stepping up. TV ads promote helping neighbors get to a vaccination site. Uber is offering free rides, and people are encourage to donate to Uber to help defray the cost. I have heard of buses that give free rides to those who are on their way to get vaccinated.

My husband and I are fortunate. We were able to get our vaccines at a Walmart within five miles of our house, with at most a 45-minute wait for the first shot. And Dan’s employer gave a $100 bonus to anyone who showed a valid vaccination card.

As to side effects, another reason that people cite as being a reason they don’t get the shot, I can report that in my case I had chills and fatigue the next day, but since I get chills and fatigue on a fairly regular basis, it wasn’t really a big deal.

And to the people who think their civil rights are being violated by COVID restrictions: You meekly go along with signs in every place of business that say, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Why is “no mask” so much more oppressive? What’s the big deal about having proof of vaccination? Your kids have to prove they’ve had measles, mumps, diphtheria, and other vaccinations before they can be enrolled in school.

The post-pandemic world will be a great one. It’s inconvenient to wear a mask and socially distance (one would hope that hand-washing would not seem very onerous). It’s unpleasant at best not to be able to hold weddings and funerals and graduations without some precautions. And there are people who are genuinely afraid of needles, to whom I would like to say, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” But really, it’s hard for me to believe that 2/3 of Americans are so needle-phobic that they can’t get a vaccination.

And this is not even considering the rest of the world. Travel companies are starting to advertise vacations abroad (with cancellation and rebooking policies). But the real problem is that this is such a global society that even Zoom conferences can’t take the place of face-to-face ones forever (though they do perhaps point out how little business travel really needs to be done and how many people are quite capable of working from home).

But there are outbreaks in Brazil, India, and other countries. We may talk about not letting people from other countries into the United State, but there are still countries that won’t let US citizens into theirs without COVID testing or proof of vaccine.

For the moment, let’s not even talk about how the coronavirus may be (or is) mutating and what that might do to our social structures.

But just know that sometimes “rugged individualist” is a synonym for “asshole,” at least when it comes to matters of life and death.

Diverse Minds

The university I went to had something called “distribution requirements.” That meant that everyone had to take at least two courses that were outside their major. I was an English major, so I took History of Science in Western Civilization and Beekeeping (which turned out to be a horrible mistake).

I think Cornell had the right idea. It’s a good idea to step outside your comfort zone and expand your mind. Of course, many students side-stepped the requirement, choosing a course that most resembled their major. Science students took economics, on the theory, I guess, that they both dealt with numbers. Same with architecture students and life drawing. Or English majors and French literature.

However, one of my friends was a civil engineering student, and she took sculpture. She didn’t get the greatest grade, but I admired that she valued exercising her mind and exploring her talents more than pumping up her GPA.

I love people who have diverse interests. We all know people who have a single-minded fixation on a topic, vocation, or hobby. And that’s okay. The world needs specialists. But the world also needs generalists.

I enjoy the science fiction fans who also love Gilbert and Sullivan. I admire lawyers who also play a stringed instrument. I applaud nuns who also enjoy South Park. Microbiologists who participate in community theater. Artists who are big fans of the space program. Gardeners who study comparative religions. Police officers who explore photography. (I really know all these people.) And we all know about the astronaut who plays guitar and sings in space.

As for me, everybody knows I’m a word nerd. My hobbies include crossword puzzles. My spare time is spent writing blogs and novels. But I am also a closet science geek. I have been known to ask friends in the sciences things like, “Explain to me how epigenetics is different from Lamarckian evolution.” And mostly understood the (probably simplified) explanation. Apart from science (and reading about it), I also love travel and semiprecious stones.

I would have to say that most of friends are people who explore different areas of their personalities and different areas of interest. I seem to be drawn to them. One of my oldest friends, a restaurant manager at the time, spent his off hours learning how to scuba dive, developing his own photos, and reading science fiction. I know an aerospace engineer who practices yoga. A writer who loves trains and old postcards. An office worker who decorates elaborate birthday cakes. The combinations are nearly endless.

People argue which is better to use, the left brain or the right brain. The left brain is the rational, logical side, exemplified by scientists and mathematicians. The right brain is said to be the seat of creativity, non-logical thinking, and artistic expression. It has been argued that our world today is skewed toward the left-brained, leaving out those who function mostly on the right side of the brain. There are a lot of right-brained people who are stuck in a left-brained world, where business executives and doctors and people in other high-paying occupations rule. Right-brained people are too often looked down on as hippie-dippy, touchy-feely new-agers who don’t really contribute to society.

(I would seriously disagree with that characterization. Right-brained pursuits make life worth living. Who can live in a world without music, film and television, stories, and the decorative and performing arts? But I digress.)

I don’t know how many people remember Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It was all the rage in education a while back. It posited that there are many kinds of IQ, and that children learn best when taught in harmony with whatever their special style of intelligence is – visual-spatial or musical or bodily-kinesthetic learning or others, in addition to verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical.

Of course, the theory can be applied ridiculously and made fun of (suggesting that the McCarthy hearings be presented in interpretive dance). But it had some remarkable successes – children who learned their alphabet better when tracing letters in a sand tray instead of reciting them.

What I mean to say is that no one operates totally on one side of the brain or the other, or learns things in the same way. My husband, for example, is a more visual learner, while I’m more verbal. But I can’t count the number of times when we’ve explored the same content, him from a documentary and me from a book – an archaeological discovery, for example.

No one way of learning or experiencing the world is better than another. No one way of expressing oneself is intrinsically better than another. And while single-minded devotion is good in some respects, so is diversity of mind. And, in my experience, it makes for more interesting people, not to mention more interesting conversationalists.

Adults Saying No

I read a story a long time ago. A woman received a call from her child’s school’s PTA, telling her that they needed two dozen cupcakes (or something similar) from her for their upcoming fundraiser.

The mother thought for a moment. “How much do you expect to earn through this event?” she asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“And how many people do you expect will contribute baked goods?”

“About 15.”

The mother promptly sent the PTA a check for $20 and did no baking.

The PTA members seemed quite upset by this. But here was a mother who had learned to say “no,” while still supporting the PTA’s goal in a tangible way – just without adding a baking chore to her job, or indeed whatever else she had to do.

Saying “no” is important. Lately, we’ve been hearing that permitting children to say “no” to an unwelcome hug or kiss, even from a close relative, is an early lesson in bodily autonomy and setting limits. Similarly, children should be able to say “stop” when being tickled and have their boundaries respected. 

Perhaps because many grown women didn’t have a chance to learn how to say “no” – and have it heard and accepted – they still don’t know how to set those boundaries.

It’s especially hard to do when children are involved.

I read another story about a woman eating a bowl of strawberries. Her child had already eaten his bowl of strawberries, but wanted his mother to give him her last berry. She ate it herself instead.

I remember this caused a furor among those who read the article. Most of the people who wrote in to the magazine where it was published were of the opinion that the mother should have surrendered the last strawberry to her child. Mothers were supposed to sacrifice for their children, they said. The mother who ate the last berry in her bowl was being selfish.

A few replied, however, that the mother was right – and within her rights to eat the strawberry herself. Her child had already eaten his share of the berries. By insisting on being given the last berry, he was, they said, learning greed and that all his wants should be gratified, to say nothing about disrespecting his mother, who, in eating the last berry, was saying “no” to him.

Nothing was resolved, of course, but everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.

Parents have to say “no” to their children sometimes, especially in cases involving danger. They also have to teach their children to say “no” – again especially in cases involving danger. And they would do well to teach their children to accept a “no” from someone else.

But when an adult says “no” to another adult, as in the first example, the response is often incredulity. How dare a mother refuse to participate in a school bake sale! The fact that she contributed in her own, deliberately fair, way seemed an affront.

But saying “no” to requests for time, money, energy, and effort is natural and understandable. It’s very difficult, though, especially for women, and especially without adding some excuse – doctor’s appointment, visiting relative, or whatever. Some feel guilty even when the excuse is valid and true.

Because that’s what’s really happening here. Parents feel guilty when they decide to deny their children – or their children’s schools – anything.

And feeling guilty is a hard habit to break.

Sorority Daze

This is a picture of the pledge paddle that my sorority “Big Sister” decorated for me. (For you kinksters, these were symbolic only and never used for hazing. And for you bros, we never had pillow fights in our shortie pajamas. But I digress.) The paddles were decorated to reflect the interests of the “Little Sisters” and mine was painted with a Lord of the Rings theme, which was somewhat trendy as a book trilogy before it ever became mega-trendy as a movie trilogy. (That’s Gandalf and two hobbits at the bottom and the Doors of Moria in the middle. Luby was my Big Sister’s nickname.)

For those of you who know me now, it may seem difficult to believe I ever belonged to a sorority in college. But I did, for a year at least, until I found out it didn’t suit me, which I should have known from the beginning.

It was really fear of housing that led me to join. First-year college students lived in the dorms. After that, dorm preference went to seniors, then juniors, then sophomores. (I don’t know who devised this system, which seems silly to me.) But first-time sorority sisters (sophomore pledges) got first crack at rooms in the sorority house. So, after “rushing,” where I understand my application was controversial, I joined Delta Phi Epsilon.

D Phi E, as it was known, was not one of the more glamorous sororities. We were more of a quiet, studious house, not running with a frat or wearing spiffy designer outfits. (We did have gold and purple t-shirts, our house colors, after “the lovely iris,” which was our symbol.) It was also known as “Dogs, Pigs, and Elephants” by most of the fraternities, which was fine with me, as it meant they didn’t pursue us or invite us to rowdy parties where, if you drank the punch, you peed blue. 

At any rate, I was a lousy sorority sister. I wore my floppy leather hat for my official photo. I once threw a boot (not a shoe, a boot) at someone who opened the door to my room without receiving a reply to her knock. (It was 6:00 a.m., an ungodly hour for getting up on a weekend, for some pledge activity, and I was merely trying to reinforce proper civility. I mean, you’ve got to have some standards, especially if you’re living with 30 other women.)

The chapter house had an interesting history. Legend says that it was built in prohibition days and had a secret stash for a bottle of booze, which none of us ever found, in the stair newel post. Instead of a house mother, we had a president (we were very independent), and a cook, who packed lunches and made dinner for us. I never convinced her that a single cup of yogurt qualified as a lunch, but it was a very popular choice. On Sunday, we had “Week in Review,” a New York Times joke that meant we were having leftovers. My husband and I still use this saying.

I “deactivated” after my first full year there, having found group housing and sisterly activities less enchanting than I thought they would be. (I had the bottom bunk; two other pledges, Sue and Cindy, had the top bunk and the single bed.) The next year I found a basement apartment in Cayuga Heights, which was very solitary, except I had to share the bathroom with a guy who lived in the smaller room. I never had to throw a boot at him. 

Later, after I graduated, I severed my ties further, so I wouldn’t get the sorority newsletter all the time, soliciting funds and talking about women I had never met. I recently found one of my old roommates online, though.  And I kept that pledge paddle all these years. I guess sorority life did mean something to me after all.

 

Big Pharma and COVID-19

Big Pharma has a bad rep. And there are certainly valid reasons for that. Recent accounts of price gouging, particularly on common, life-saving drugs like insulin, have had consumers fuming. The cost of newer drugs is sky-high. And there have been an awful lot of drugs that were apparently sent to market too early, leading to a lot of dire side effects and drug recalls. Add to that the dubious practice of advertising prescription medications direct-to-consumer, and Big Pharma has abused the trust of the American people. The drugs they develop and sell may be – indeed, often are – beneficial and even life-saving, but that doesn’t seem to dissipate much of the cloud of bad feeling surrounding American pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Unfortunately, Big Pharma is likely going to be needed to help get us through the coronavirus crisis.

Sure, there are government agencies involved in the process of developing treatments and vaccines as well – the CDC, FDA, and NIH, to name a few. But even these institutes and organizations have been tainted by the dubious reputation of large drug companies. They are seen as in cahoots together, developing and testing drugs together, rushing them onto shelves and into doctors’ offices and hospitals, patenting the results, and pocketing the proceeds. Never mind whether that’s an accurate portrayal or not. That’s the public sentiment.

But where, exactly, do people believe that COVID-19 treatments and vaccines are going to come from, if not from Big Pharma and the various institutes? This is a novel virus, not likely to be much affected by drugs that already exist, though those should certainly be tried. Cures for other diseases have already been tested on COVID-19 and found wanting. Crackpot theories such as drinking bleach have made the rounds, with the potential to do great harm rather than help. Developing pharmaceuticals requires a huge investment of time and especially money. Big Pharma has to be big to work even as well as it does. So, yes, we should be looking to Big Pharma, if not directly for discovering a vaccine, at the very least for manufacturing and distributing it. Basically, there aren’t any mom-and-pop vaccine shops, biotech start-ups and upstarts notwithstanding. 

The question then becomes, if and when Big Pharma does develop drugs and vaccines for COVID-19 (far from guaranteed – we still don’t have a vaccine for HIV/AIDS), will people be willing to use them?

Scientific literacy is pretty low in the US right now. People don’t understand how vaccines work. Of course, that isn’t entirely the fault of the US education system. For decades now, there has been a growing party of anti-vaxxers that don’t just not understand the science, but refuse to even consider it. And facts don’t matter to those whose minds are made up. Still, after all these years and the complete discrediting of the guy who faked the study, people believe that vital childhood vaccinations cause autism.

Then there are the conspiracy theorists. I don’t know how many people there are who actually believe that Bill Gates is a Bond-style supervillain living on a volcano island, petting a long-haired white cat, but there certainly is a vocal subset of people who proclaim that, even should a vaccine for COVID-19 be produced, they will not use it, for fear of being microchipped, or submitting to the New World Order, or the Number of the Beast, or something. There may not be many people that far out on the limb, but their fervent influence has the potential to disrupt the herd immunity that ought to develop after the proper use of a new, effective vaccine.

So, the question becomes, if and when a treatment or vaccine becomes available, will people be smart enough to avail themselves of it? Or will the lack of trust in Big Pharma, the medical establishment, and medical science itself mean that sufferers will deny themselves treatment and go right on spreading the deadly disease?

I suppose it in part depends on how horrendous the death toll has been by the time that a vaccine exists, and how many family members, friends, and loved ones of doubters have died. 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk Viruses

denisismagilov – stock.adobe.com

What’s up with viruses? What the hell are they, anyway? And how do those sly whatsits operate? Here’s a layperson’s guide.

Disclaimer first: I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. I’m not a microbiologist and I don’t think anyone plays one on TV. I’m simply a person who stayed awake in science class and has read a lot ever since.

First, let’s make this clear: Viruses have no brains. We can talk about a virus’s goals or intentions or strategies, but we’re at least partly anthropomorphizing or speaking metaphorically. A virus is a strand of DNA or RNA (in the case of COVID-19) wrapped in a shell which can glom onto bodily tissues so the virus can duplicate itself and move on to another host.

That’s what it does, and that’s about all it does. All a virus wants is to replicate itself and continue to do so. The fact that it makes you sick is quite incidental to that.

The incubation period – the length of time before you show symptoms of an illness – is important. It gives the virus time to multiply unnoticed within the body and infect others via bodily fluids before someone notices and tries to kill it off. The longer the incubation period, the more successful the virus is. Think HIV. It has an incubation period of years, which was what allowed it to be so successful at infecting a large number of people before anyone noticed.

The incubation period for coronavirus is, we think, about two weeks, give or take. You could have the virus without any symptoms during that time and all the while be spreading it by coughing, poor hygiene, or being too close to people. The masks that you wear may seem like they are protecting you, but actually they are preventing you from making other people sick.

Viruses are tricky bastards. They can – and do – evolve and mutate and jump species. That’s when a virus becomes particularly dangerous. If it mutates, as the flu virus does pretty much every year, no one has a natural immunity to it and unless a vaccine is created for that specific version, a lot of people get the flu.

Jumping species is another thing altogether. A virus can be living happily in a pig or a chicken or a bat or a monkey, not causing too much damage (at least not right away). But when a virus mutates so that it can infect and cause illness in another sort of animal (for our purposes, a human being), that’s when things get really tricky. The virus now has a population to infect that never encountered it before. It can burn through that population like wildfire. If the incubation period is short, the virus may burn itself out rapidly and not claim too many victims, as they die before having a chance to pass it on. But if the incubation period is longer, the virus gets a free ride to any number of new hosts.

And yes, people can get infected by eating the host animal. It’s not very likely, since most people eat their meat cooked, not raw. Bodily fluids and bites or scratches are much more dangerous, as is contamination with feces. But that’s not the only way that viruses are transmitted via animals. You know how viruses are passed from person to person without us having to eat each other’s flesh? Well, the virus can travel in the bodily fluids of other animals as well. So if you don’t wash your hands after feeding your chickens, or you stir up and breathe in some bat guano while you’re exploring a cave, or a mouse pees in your storeroom, any viruses lurking there can infect the unwary, if that virus is ready to jump species.

So, that’s a basic guide to viruses. And let’s be real about this. Viruses are all around us and spread quite naturally. There’s no real need to worry about a virus being manufactured and escaping from a lab. And need I say that Hillary Clinton, the deep state, Chinese supervillains, and George Soros have nothing to do with it? Yes, I suppose I do.