Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Monday, May 18, 2020

A “get out of hospital free” card

I dug from my travel files a battered yellow booklet called “International Certificates of Vaccinations.” It tells me that I have been vaccinated against smallpox, cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, paratyphoid (A and B), polio, typhoid, pneumonia, hepatitis A, tetanus, typhus, mumps, and both kinds of measles.

            Every one of those used to cause epidemics.

            The only difference between an epidemic and what’s now called a pandemic is that a pandemic also affects people you don’t know on the other side of the world. Locally, the effects of epidemic and pandemic are identical. People get sick. Some die.

            Because of my vaccinations, I needn’t fear any of those diseases. But an 80-year-old woman wrote to Dr. Keith Roach, author of a syndicated newspaper column, “I will never willingly get a vaccination for anything. 

            “I have only been sick once in my life, and it was after a vaccination I received in the seventh grade.”

            Her outburst tells me two things. 

            First, she has never survived an epidemic of any kind.

            Second, she offers no correlation between the vaccination and the illness she claims it caused. Did she get the same disease she was vaccinated against? Or some other unrelated disease?

            Does she blame her illness on the weakened disease in the vaccine? Or some other element in the mix? Like mercury, perhaps?

            It doesn’t matter; she’s made up her mind about vaccines in general. All vaccines. 


Waiting for a saviour

            I wonder if her hostility will carry over to the COVID-19 vaccine, when it’s developed. 

            Because it will be. For the first time in history, scientists in all countries are collaborating, examining hundreds of possible treatments, and sharing their progress, their failures and their successes. 

            A vaccine normally takes five to ten years to develop when scientists work in isolation. This one may be ready by January.

            There are only three ways to overcome a communicable disease like COVID-19. 

            One is exposure. When everyone has had the disease, and the survivors have developed immunity, the disease will die out. That’s what happened to the plagues in Europe, in the Middle Ages.

            The second is isolation – basically, the tactic used by Canadian medical authorities.

            Isolation works because a virus is not really a living thing. Unlike bacteria, it cannot reproduce on its own. A virus must find a host, so that it can train the host’s cells to become a virus factory. The host will either die, or recover. Either way, the virus must find a new host to continue the process. 

            If we could quarantine every human being on the planet, all 7.8 billion of us, from the concrete canyons of New York to the steaming jungles of the Congo, for at least three weeks, say, the COVID-19 virus would have run out of hosts.

            Goodbye, coronavirus.

            Obviously, that ain’t gonna happen. 


Philosophically right

            So the third alternative is a vaccine. Which can be given to everyone – again, from New York to the Congo – to give the COVID-19 virus no place to replicate.

            Yes, it can be done. Vaccines wiped out smallpox. They’ve almost wiped out polio -- there are only a handful of active cases anywhere in the world today. 

            As you can probably tell, I’m in favour of vaccines. I’m alive today because of them. As a child in India, I lived through epidemics of most of the diseases I listed at the top of this column. 

            I’m also in favour of them philosophically. I’ve learned that life does not consist of a choice between opposite extremes. Both extremes – too much or too little, all this or all that – are equally harmful. 

            Take almost anything – fire, water, oxygen, salt, sugar, parenting, discipline – too much and too little are both dangerous. 

            The “good” always lies somewhere between the extremes. I think of it as the Goldilocks “just right” solution. 

            And vaccines fit that philosophical framework perfectly. You don’t have to submit to total isolation, and you don’t have to risk the wrath of full infection. You receive a tiny bit of the disease, either killed or so weakened that your body’s natural immunity can take crush it.

            That’s how Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine. He observed that milkmaids (pardon the dated term) seemed immune to smallpox. The cows they milked had cowpox, a less-lethal cousin of smallpox. He tried deliberately infecting patients with tiny amounts of cowpox.

            It worked. Because it fell on that spectrum between no disease and deadly.

            The first COVID-19 vaccine may not be perfect. But it will be much better than 300,000-plus deaths.


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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You didn’t get a column last week because my brain refused to work. I couldn’t put two words together, let alone two thoughts. In the past, I’ve experienced grief as overwhelming physical weariness; this time, my body seems to be working fairly well, but the fatigue has bogged down my mind. Further evidence of that seems to be my inability to send these columns out on time, even when I have them already written.

            Anyway, here are the letters that came as response to the Sharp Edges column two weeks ago, on liminality.


David Edwards “loved your phrase, ‘They are the labour pains of something new being born.’”


James Russell read the same sentence, and it reminded him of Yeats’ poem, with the last two lines:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”


John Shaffer, writing from the U.S., drew a parallel  between oil and other institutions: “Slavery added to the national wealth of our country, too, but that didn't make it right at any time in human history

            “War is also good for our U.S. economy, but war is hell for those gifted with our bombs. Of course, we can rationalize the benefits to humanity of our largesse during World War I and World War II and the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but the military-industrial complex mentioned by Dwight Eisenhower as he left office is very real and very powerful.

            “One time when I was working against war, a man called me on the telephone to scream at me and he affirmed that Jesus said "an eye for an eye". I took great satisfaction in forcing him to find his Bible and then read to me exactly what Jesus said, which was the opposite of what he had screamed at me. One of my more satisfying moments. The caller was still angry, but he was a bit more informed.”


Steve Roney agreed that the current pandemic seemed to be a “a potentially liminal time. But it may not be. The Spanish Flu seems to have left remarkably little historical footprint. After all, once the virus burns itself out, we reach herd immunity, or a vaccine is developed, the real situation is back to the status quo ante.

            “Technological advances are more likely to be liminal. The Internet was already altering the world entirely. Another truly liminal event was the invention of movable type. Or the steam engine. Marshall McLuhan used to argue for the stirrup.”


Tom Watson: “You speak of being in a liminal time. I take that to mean ‘between what is and what is to come.’ In that sense, I've lived my entire life in a liminal time. And when I was in the business world, one assistant manager had a saying: ‘The pendulum swings. The trick is to keep from getting hit in the rear as it inexorably swings by.’”

Rob Brown told of “the first man and woman who were ejected from the garden for disobedience. The man turned to his wife and said, ‘My dear, we're living in a liminal time…”


Ruth Shaver was surprised that “liminal” wasn’t in my dictionaries: “I encountered the word in the 1980s during preparation in English and Latin classes for the SATs. In seminary my New Testament professor used it to describe Paul's early understanding of the time in which he lived, when he still anticipated the imminent return of Jesus Christ. And at least one of my professors in a Soviet studies class used the word to describe the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and what he felt was the rapidly approaching fall of the USSR, which happened a few months after I graduated with a degree in Soviet and East European Studies...”


Hugh Pett checked the massive 2010 Oxford English Dictionary. It did have “liminal,” also a list of usages going back to 1884 and 1895.


Isabel Gibson said “Thanks for this introduction to a new-to-me word.

            “It will be interesting to see if social mores stay changed. Last spring, as neighbours emerged, blinking, from their houses, it was only polite to move to stand beside them to have a post-winter visit. These days, I stay put in my garden and they stay put on the street. Will that last? Who knows?

            “It will be more than interesting to see whether we make any lasting changes in how we manage and pay for some services, like care for frail seniors. And how we reimburse those workers. And whether we reward companies and organizations for providing better working conditions by being willing to pay the higher prices they entail.”


Laurna Tallman had a wordplay on the Covid crisis: “Your note of optimism is encouraging and contagious in the most positive sense.”


Cliff Boldt commiserated on my previous column getting blasted by a pro-oil reader: “When you through a stone amongst a pack of wild dogs and hear a yelp, you know you have hit something.”






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                       I write a second column each Wednesday, called Soft Edges, which deals somewhat more gently with issues of life and faith. To sign up for Soft Edges, write to me directly at the address above, or send a blank e-mail to softedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think some of these links are spam.)

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.








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