Pandemic, race and the vaccine — a historyThursday, April 15, 2021
The history of pandemic is interesting and instructive. It is fascinating and remarkable in terms of how it forces people to think about their existence, especially in the spiritual realms. It is informative and enlightening due to its insightful revelations of profound changes in the spiritual, social, cultural, economic, and political spheres.
A brief investigation into the history of pandemics uncovers a contrasting world before vaccines and the other the world after vaccine. Many articles begin the story of vaccine with the role of Edward Jenner and his use of the development of smallpox vaccine using cow pox material in 1726. In 1721 there was an outbreak of smallpox epidemic in Boston. It was prior and during this crisis that an African slave, Onesimus, recognised the disease and told his master about his personal experience with smallpox and how it was treated in Africa.
Pandemic and change
The course of the long history of mankind has been marked with milestones of infectious diseases in humans and human responses to the diseases. For example, in earlier times there was the use of small pox scabs to inoculate victims of the disease in Africa, China and Turkey before coming to Europe and the Americas.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Justininian there was a severe pandemic that prevented the emperor from uniting the East and West of the Roman Empire. The era was followed by what was described as the Dark Ages. Pandemic in the 13th and 14th century led to peace between warring powers England and France; profound social and political changes took place in those countries.
In another pandemic period the Vikings were forced to halt the war for the conquest for Greenland and also closed down their exploration plans of the Americas. The 15th century exploration of Europeans to the Americas led to the decline of the native peoples by 90, chiefly, by way of death from smallpox. This era saw the conquest of the Americas by European powers — an act of history that gave rise to the capitalist and industrialist age in Europe.
Small pox in Boston from the Caribbean
Smallpox also entered the North American colonies on slave ships, transmitted by enslaved people who, in packed and unsanitary quarters, passed the disease along to one another and, eventually, to colonists at their destinations. One of those destinations was Massachusetts, which was a centre of the early slave trade. The first enslaved people had arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, and by 1700 about 1,000 enslaved people lived in the colony, mostly in Boston. From the spring of 1721 until winter 1722 a smallpox epidemic afflicted the city of Boston. Out of a population of 11,000, over 6,000 cases were reported, with 850 dying from the disease. It was out of this tragic circumstance that emerged a process of inoculation that gave rise to a history of vaccine in the history of pandemics.
When Onesimus' prescription saved Boston
In 1706 Onesimus, an enslaved West African man was purchased for the prominent Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, by his congregation. Mather was a powerful figure in Boston history. Like owners of enslaved people, he believed that they had a duty to convert enslaved people to Christianity and educate them for social control.
But in 1716 Onesimus told him something he did believe: That he, Onesimus, knew how to prevent smallpox. According to historical notes, Mather wrote that Onesimus was “a pretty intelligent fellow”. His slave told him he “had smallpox — and then hadn't”. Onesimus said that he had the disease and “had undergone an operation which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it...and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion”.
According to the notes, the operation Onesimus referred to consisted of rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected material was introduced into the body the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox.
The Puritan minister took the account how to cure smallpox from his slave to a young Zabdiel Boylston, the only physician in Boston who supported the technique. Boylston was also a medical researcher at Harvard. Together they developed and tested the power of the inoculation. So, in 1721, when the smallpox epidemic spread from a ship from the Caribbean to the population of Boston, sickening about half of the city's residents, Mather and Boylston got their chance to practise what they learned from Onesimus.
Boylston sprang into action, inoculating his son and his enslaved workers against the disease. He began inoculating other Bostonians and, of 242 people he inoculated, only six died — one in 40, as opposed to one in seven deaths among the population of Boston who didn't undergo the procedure. The smallpox epidemic wiped out 844 people in Boston, over 14 per cent of the population. The same prejudices that caused him to distrust his servant made other white colonists reluctant to undergo a medical procedure developed by or for black people.
Onesimus's cure and the root of conspiracy theories
According to historical notes, Mather “was vilified” and an explosive device was thrown through the windows of his office with an angry note. Some whites refused to take the medicine associated with black people. There was “an ugly racial element to the anger”.
Religion also contributed. Some preachers argued that it was against God's will to expose his creatures to dangerous diseases. Here is the root of conspiracy theories against vaccine — the root of the anti-vaccine movement led by white supremacists and extreme right wingers of the church movement in America. Of course, Donald Trump, from 2016 to 2020, put a new spin on conspiracy theories and how to convert lies into truth and truth into lies. It was that 1721 event in Boston that gave rise to the vaccine movement led by Edward Jenner in 1726.
Science over ignorance
In the world of early pandemics medical practices had yet to advance a cure in years leading up to this time (1721 era), and many illnesses were treated with home remedies and superstitious “cures”. Therefore, Europe was completely unprepared for the virulent bout of Black Death that would strike in the 1340s and 1350s. The traditional treatments proved, for the most part, ineffective, and fear of the disease sent people scattering across the continent, unwittingly carrying the plague with them.
With no effective protection from the disease, some clung to their superstitious potions and incantations, some prayed in hopes their faith would save them, but many merely waited in fear of the day the plague would reach their town. During those periods significant proportion of national and global populations were killed, even ships at sea with cargoes of dead people and crew and no harbour to call.
Do we have people in Jamaica waiting for COVID-19 to bring death on their door steps? This pandemic has turned the world upside down, having destructive impact on the economy and society, and a devastating and ravaging effect on peoples across the world. We, in Jamaica, are not immune. Let history and science reign over ignorance.
Louis E A Moyston, PhD, is a consultant and radio talk show presenter. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.
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