Lesson of the pump handle

These are troubled and troubling times, as arguments persist over mandatory masks and vaccinations, over individual rights and parental rights.

In a way, we as a community and a nation are fighting a civil war over fundamental concepts of how we live as a society.

This civil war is not over slavery or civil rights. We are deeply, deeply divided over whether the common good is paramount, or whether individual rights take precedence over all decisions locally and nationally.

Because we remain in the midst of a worldwide epidemic that has caused proportionally more disease and death in the United States than almost every other country, it is worthwhile to visit the beginning of epidemiology, which encompasses contagious diseases.

The place is London, the year is 1854, and a cholera epidemic has broken out in the Broad Street district of Soho.

Children and adults are dying in alarming numbers in early September, and no one knows why.

Dr. John Snow approaches local officials and demands an audience.

Based on the proximity of the deaths to the community Broad Street water pump, he suggests — or demands–that the pump handle be removed.

The officials are doubtful, but they have no better response to a week of disease and death. They ordered the pump handle removed.

Within days, the dying stopped, all because a prescient physician had the insight and good sense to remove the source of the pestilence. It was a mandatory action.

The local officials locked away the pump handle. They did not leave it lying nearby so residents could often make fatal decisions for themselves and their children.

The common good was served even though residents were inconvenienced.

We have come a long way since the pump handle and even the influenza pandemic of 1918, when scientists did not know with certainty that the disease was caused by a virus.

We know what causes COVID-19, we know how variants of the coronavirus can cause new outbreaks, and we know how to stop it. The pump handle is within reach.

Knowing how to stop the disease and encouraging the behaviors that stop it — vaccination, mask wearing, and social distancing — are obviously two different things.

But focusing on masks or vaccinations is in some ways a distraction, in effect counting the trees when we should be looking at the forest.

As a nation and a society, what is important? Is it the common good or individual rights?

It’s important to remember that this is not merely a philosophical discussion. Human lives are at stake.

To date, Covid has killed more people than the total population of central Pennsylvania. Everyone from Clearfield County down through Bedford County, gone.

Our religious traditions — all of them — honor life and the preservation of life. We cannot allow our individualism to take precedence over the common good when lives are in the balance. Calamities such as COVID demand that, at certain critical times, “we” must come before “me.”

Can we act for the common good, as our country has done so in the past? Let’s hope so.

Otherwise we are condemned to more death and a continuing civil war that threatens the heart and soul of our nation.

Duncansville resident Don Clippinger has been a journalist for more than 55 years.


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