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War and Pandemic Journalism

During both, the truth can quickly disappear.

by Patrick Cockburn 

Part 2 - My First Pandemic

I first experienced a pandemic in the summer of 1956 when, at the age of 6, I caught polio in Cork, Ireland. The epidemic there began soon after virologist Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for it in the United States, but before it was available in Europe. Polio epidemics were at their height in the first half of the 20th century and, in a number of respects, closely resembled the Covid-19 experience: many people caught the disease but only a minority were permanently disabled by or died of it. In contrast with Covid-19, however, it was young children, not the old, who were most at risk. The terror caused by poliomyelitis, to use its full name, was even higher than during the present epidemic exactly because it targeted the very young and its victims did not generally disappear into the cemetery but were highly visible on crutches and in wheelchairs, or prone in iron lungs.

Parents were mystified by the source of the illness because it was spread by great numbers of asymptomatic carriers who did not know they had it. The worst outbreaks were in the better-off parts of modern cities like Boston, Chicago, Copenhagen, Melbourne, New York and Stockholm. People living there enjoyed a good supply of clean water and had effective sewage disposal, but did not realize that all of this robbed them of their natural immunity to the polio virus.

The pattern in Cork was the same: most of the sick came from the more affluent parts of the city, while people living in the slums were largely unaffected. Everywhere, there was a frantic search to identify those, like foreign immigrants, who might be responsible for spreading the disease. In the New York epidemic of 1916, even animals were suspected of doing so and 72,000 cats and 8,000 dogs were hunted down and killed.

The illness weakened my legs permanently and I have a severe limp so, even reporting in dangerous circumstances in the Middle East, I could only walk, not run. I was very conscious of my disabilities from the first, but did not think much about how I had acquired them or the epidemic itself until perhaps four decades later. It was the 1990s and I was then visiting ill-supplied hospitals in Iraq as that country’s health system was collapsing under the weight of UN sanctions. 

As a child, I had once been a patient in an almost equally grim hospital in Ireland and it occurred to me then, as I saw children in those desperate circumstances in Iraq, that I ought to know more about what had happened to me. At that time, my ignorance was remarkably complete. I did not even know the year when the polio epidemic had happened in Ireland, nor could I say if it was caused by a virus or a bacterium.

So I read up on the outbreak in newspapers of the time and Irish Health Ministry files, while interviewing surviving doctors, nurses, and patients. Kathleen O’Callaghan, a doctor at St. Finbarr’s hospital, where I had been brought from my home when first diagnosed, said that people in the city were so frightened “they would cross the road rather than walk past the walls of the fever hospital.

My father recalled that the police had to deliver food to infected homes because no one else would go near them. A Red Cross nurse, Maureen O’Sullivan, who drove an ambulance at the time, told me that, even after the epidemic was over, people would quail at the sight of her ambulance, claiming “the polio is back again” and dragging their children into their houses or they might even fall to their knees to pray.

The local authorities in a poor little city like Cork where I grew up understood better than national governments today that fear is a main feature of epidemics. They tried then to steer public opinion between panic and complacency by keeping control of the news of the outbreak. When British newspapers like The Times reported that polio was rampant in Cork, they called this typical British slander and exaggeration. But their efforts to suppress the news never worked as well as they hoped.

Instead, they dented their own credibility by trying to play down what was happening. In that pre-television era, the main source of information in my hometown was the Cork Examiner, which, after the first polio infections were announced at the beginning of July 1956, accurately reported on the number of cases, but systematically underrated their seriousness.

Headlines about polio like “Panic Reaction Without Justification” and “Outbreak Not Yet Dangerous” regularly ran below the fold on its front page. Above it were the screaming ones about the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising of that year. In the end, this treatment only served to spread alarm in Cork where many people were convinced that the death toll was much higher than the officially announced one and that bodies were being secretly carried out of the hospitals at night.

My father said that, in the end, a delegation of local businessmen, the owners of the biggest shops, approached the owners of the Cork Examiner, threatening to withdraw their advertising unless it stopped reporting the epidemic. I was dubious about this story, but when I checked the newspaper files many years later, I found that he was correct and the paper had almost entirely stopped reporting on the epidemic just as sick children were pouring into St. Finbarr’s hospital.

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