“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

The words are Ecclesiastes 1:9 — among my favorites, thoughtful, poetic, but pessimistic. There are “new” things under the sun, lots of them, some of them lifesaving. They just haven’t been invented, yet, and when they are, too many are ignored, disputed, even feared, sometimes for irrelevant reasons beyond the idea itself. I’m thinking about plagues, the science of medicine and the current COVID vaccination crisis.

Twenty-five centuries ago, the historian, Thucydides, wrote in his “History of the Peloponnesian War” of a great plague that destroyed Athens’ armies, killed its leader, Pericles, and caused its defeat at the hands of Sparta. Homer’s “Iliad” describes a pestilence sent as divine punishment for the deeds of King Agamemnon. There was the plague of Cyprian from 250-270 AD that killed upwards of 100,000 people per day in Rome and led to the failure of that great empire.

Then came the Plague of Justinian in 541, the Bubonic Plague in 1348. There was smallpox, brought to the New World by the Conquistadors in the 1500s, that destroyed the Aztec Empire. The list goes on with cholera, typhoid, anthrax, diphtheria, meningitis, strep, polio, malaria, and dozens upon dozens more. They killed people, millions of them, so many that the average life expectancy in colonial America was only 25 years.

About the time of the American Revolution, a British doctor, Edward Jenner, had a new idea. He’d observed that milkmaids, who contracted cowpox in the course of their work, remained immune to the deadly smallpox that had been killing millions since the time of the pharaohs.

Jenner didn’t know about viruses, nor did he understand immunology, but he deliberately took scrapings from cowpox lesions and gave them to several of his patients — and it worked. They got sick from cowpox, but they didn’t get smallpox and die. Jenner didn’t understand why, or how, but it was the first use of vaccination to halt the spread of a highly contagious disease — probably the single most important step in the history of medicine.

Jenner was followed by Robert Koch. Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, the “germ theory of disease” and advances in sanitation, isolation and prevention. It was about science and a way of thinking and problem solving that was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

All of these discoveries and advances were disputed, but they’re why I’m here and alive and old enough to remember and recoil at the great scourge of my childhood in the 1940s and early 1950s. It was polio, a terrifying virus that struck suddenly, and without warning, leaving behind a trail of paralysis, wheel chairs and leg braces. Some of its victims couldn’t breathe and were locked away in iron lungs to keep them alive. More than 70% of Minnesota’s cases and half its deaths were among children under 15. There were two big outbreaks in Minnesota. One in 1946 closed the Minnesota State Fair. My mother kept me out of school for another in the fall of 1952.

Then the Salk vaccine arrived and had its first field trials in the spring of 1953. A year later it was declared safe. My parents made sure I was among the first in line to get vaccinated. Others hesitated. One of them was a schoolmates who contracted polio and was disabled for the rest of his life.

I don’t understand why so many Minnesotans and others across the country have refused and continue to dispute the COVID vaccine. At this writing, COVID has killed 607 thousand people in the US; many of them before the vaccine became available and still more after. And it continues and will continue to sicken and kill the unvaccinated.

I recall the great rush for the polio vaccine in the 1950s. I’m not sensing that urgency for COVID and wonder, why? Is it fear? If it is, and you’re among the unvaccinated, you should have a conversation with a medical professional about your situation. There are hazards and issues, but they’re infinitesimal compared to the consequences of COVID.

Speaking bluntly, do you want to die? Worse, do you want the virus to spread and mutate? There are, already, several highly contagious variants. If one emerges that is vaccine resistant, we could face a return to lockdowns and the crisis environment of the past year.

Some of this opposition is political — perhaps tribal. None of it is reasonable. The virus doesn’t care. My wife, Marcia, and I are septuagenarians. We have health issues and were among the first in line to take the vaccine in February. It’s July and we’re doing just fine — and grateful. Get vaccinated.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.

Events