The gospel of social distancing
She wiped gently as she could the foul, green pus oozing from the wounds on his feet. The man affected with leprosy looked upon this simple old woman with wonder. As he lay rotting putridly in the gutter, she was the first person to speak to him kindly in days. He was as a small child in her arms, his hands and feet made gnarled and useless by this disease which was literally eating him alive.
Leprosy is an infectious disease spread by a cough or sneeze via aerosolized respiratory droplets. A disfiguring illness feared since ancient times, leprosy was known to be contagious and lepers were supposed to isolate themselves from others, wear masks on their faces, and warn people of their disease. It is now known that about 95 percent of people who are infected with leprosy are asymptomatic carriers.
About 15 years before the Spanish Flu would kill 5 percent of Guam’s population, the U.S. Navy forced social isolation on native Chamorros suffering from leprosy. These patients were torn from their families and quarantined in leper colonies such as that erected at Ypao on Tumon Bay not far away from where Covid-19 survivors from the USS Teddy Roosevelt are today in military quarantine.
Many Chamorros defied Navy government laws by continuing to visit, help, and even liberate their sick family members from the Tumon leper colony. Dr. Anne Perez Hattori documents the outrage of the local people in her manuscript, Colonial Dis-Ease: U.S. Navy Health Policies and the Chamorros of Guam, 1898-1941.
By 1910, the Navy government began prosecuting Chamorros who concealed sick family members. Additionally, there were reports of lepers escaping the colony to nearby ranches and homes. In December 1912, Guam Naval Governor R.E. Coontz received orders to banish the Chamorro patients to the infamous Culion Island leper colony in the Philippines. As the lepers were forced to walk from Tumon to Apra Harbor, hundreds of Chamorros lined the village streets to bid farewell to friends and relatives that they knew that they would possibly never see again.
Coontz would later write, “It had to be done ostensibly on account of economy, but it was a heartrending procedure. On the way from the leper colony to the steamer it was necessary for all the unfortunates to pass through the town. Their relatives and many other natives congregated to see them go. It made one think either of a circus parade or a big funeral. One leper was 88-years-old and whether or not he survived the trip I never learned."
The Culion Leper Colony was established in 1906 by the U.S. government in order to rid leprosy from the Philippine islands through the only method known at the time: isolating all existing cases and gradually phasing out the disease from the population.
This medical isolation cure may indeed be effective. Extreme social distancing such as quarantine methods may phase out problem disease from the population, but the cost to the social well-being of the people in that population may yet outweigh the cure.
Covid-19 like leprosy is a disease that doctors want to cure just like any infection, injury, or toxic exposure. The illness caused by Covid-19, on the other hand, describes the adverse impact on the total well-being of the individual human being and her family beyond a simple organic pathologic state.
An ill person is someone who has lost social value because of the pain, distress, weakness, and fatigue that can be caused by disease. Healing must restore a sense of well-being that may be best manifested by a hopeful smile, a positive attitude, and courage.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus Christ came down from the mountainside after the Sermon on the Mount, large multitudes followed him. A man full of leprosy came and knelt before Him and inquired him saying, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean?" Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man and said "I am willing."
Today, in city after city around the world, the novel coronavirus has robbed its victims of humanity. Separated by the plastic and paper of personal protective equipment, we have become isolated bits of DNA and RNA and the virus has won.
We must now reject the arrogant presumption that Covid-19 disease can be eradicated anymore than we have eradicated Tuberculosis or the Flu. We must now courageously return to the normal human existence of hopeful uncertainty.
We must be ever watchful and prepared to deal effectively with all infectious diseases. We must dedicate ourselves to a comprehensive effort to accelerate epidemic disaster mitigation, enhance proactive epidemic disease management, and aggressively promote economic and societal recovery.
As strong, typhoon-tested people, Guam needs to rise up and reach out our hands to help our family and our neighbors. Our medical and scientific teams will continue to relentlessly scour the earth to seek the truth about this virus and flatten the curve. The eventual and inevitable unlocking of our island society and economy will demand continuous risk management, impeccable public leadership, crystal clear communication, and courage.
Dr. Vince Akimoto practices Family Medicine at the American Medical Clinic. Send feedback to email@example.com