Polio Drive

Yesterday, my computer ate my mail.

Presumably due to digestive malfunction, it consumed the last nine months of email I sent in 2012. I used various black arts to attempt a recovery, but the upshot was… they’re gone. And it got me thinking about the way our life is stored. A few decades ago, only corporations and governments kept archives of correspondence, but now it seems necessary for individual citizens to do so.

Is it really? I don’t think so. Most of the stuff I sent is copied in replies I still have—if I didn’t get anything back, maybe I shouldn’t have hit send in the first place. I wonder how much I’ll really need what I lost? Fact is, we’ve turned into digital hoarders.

But… If you do need to hoard safely, now that the world has not ended, there are ways to keep everything in the cloud. I had that discussion last March, when the computer guzzled my mail for the first time. Back then, my black arts worked, so I put the whole issue out of my mind. The problem with clouds is that once in a while, stuff falls out of them—usually on your head.

Don’t get me wrong, I like clouds. I love the way the sun’s rays peep through them, the ever-present rainbows that grace the Norwegian fjords, and the fat drops of rain that pelt down on the west coast of Portugal as the winter storms roll in from the Atlantic. I write about it in The India Road, and quote a beautiful Portuguese saying about the rain. I thought it would add to the sadness of the moment when the spy Pêro da Covilhã is about to make love to his girlfriend one last time before he departs for the East.

The ivy and pine trees were damp, and an old peasant widow, dressed in black from head to foot, walked past them carrying a large bundle on her head. As she passed, droplets of rain showered overhead even as the sunlight fell upon them. “See, my lords, the witches are combing their hair,” the woman cackled, then went slowly on her way.
The spy turned to look at Florbella. Her eyes were swimming with tears.

Last Monday I was down in the eastern Algarve—they call it Sotavento, or leeward—and I drove north out of Tavira along the banks of the river. It’s a wonderfully narrow road, lined with orchards. I found myself thinking about the spy, who takes on the name Boutros Al Tafiri—Peter of Tavirawhen he arrives in Aden. As I drove along that winding lane, turned west and started to climb the river valley, there was an orchard belonging to someone called Pêro. Not Pedro, the accepted spelling of Peter for the last three hundred years.

Back then, medical knowledge was scant. Diseases were often classified as ‘humors’, there was no awareness that bacteria and viruses were major causes, and the role of vectors such as drinking water and sewage was not understood. The fight against disease is an integral part of human history, a war against an unseen and potentially deadly enemy.

After the First World War, an epidemic of poliomyelitis plagued the United States. Perhaps its most famous victim was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, struck in 1921, aged thirty-nine. It was only in 1955 that Jonas Salk’s vaccine became widespread in the U.S., and the rate of infection by the polio virus fell rapidly. Less than a decade later, the oral vaccine appeared, the famous sugar cube. I remember it as a welcome respite from the medical profession using my rear end as a pincushion.

Polio vaccination in Columbus, Georgia, in the early 1960s (Wikipedia)

Polio vaccination in Columbus, Georgia, in the early 1960s (Wikipedia)

Back in the nineteen-thirties, Tom Weller accidentally discoved that he could culture the polio virus in the lab. Just like Fleming’s discovery of penicillin,  serendipity was involved. A few spare test tubes remained from another experiment, and Weller added mouse brain cells infected with polio virus to embryonic human lung tissue. The virus grew. His experiments won him the Nobel Prize and opened the door to Salk and later to Albert (Mr. Sugarcube) Sabin.

The polio war was won. Or at least it was in the West. In Pakistan, there are an estimated thirty-three million kids who remain unvaccinated. Not in the 1960s, or even the 1990s. Now. Three days before Christmas 2012.

According to one of my reference sites, ten percent of infected people develop symptoms. One percent become paralysed.

The virus reaches the brain and spinal cord where it multiplies and destroys the nerve tissue. At this point the disease becomes spinal or bulbar (…). Both forms are characterized by muscle pain, stiff neck and back, and possible paralysis. The spinal form affects the limbs (…). After a severe attack of polio in its paralytic form, there is no treatment for the disease itself, although symptoms such as muscular paralysis can be helped with physical therapy.

So let’s do the math. One percent of thirty three million, is er… a grand total of three hundred and thirty thousand crippled children.

Of course, it can also strike adults. If it happened to FDR, it could happen to you—if you’re not vaccinated, that is. At present, there are only three countries in the world where poliomyelitis continues to be endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

Every time the national authorities, or the United Nations, have attempted mass vaccination in Pakistan, they failed. This week, the U.N. once again suspended its polio vaccination program, after eight of its campaign workers had been murdered. Why? Because apparently the fundamentalist view, most recently expressed at gunpoint by the Taliban, is that the polio eradication plan is really a US-sponsored plot to poison Pakistani children.

While this tragedy unfolds, the U.S. and Europe gear up for the festive season, by and large oblivious to these faraway lands. And apparently also to those nearby. Because this week the U.K. Financial Services Authority slammed a largely unnoticed quarter billion dollar fine on the Swiss bank UBS. Barclays got a sweet deal for telling tales to the teacher. The scale at which banks systematically act in utter disregard of public interest is mind boggling. One trader email reads:

f you keep 6s [six-month yen Libor] unchanged today … I will fucking do one humongous deal with you … Like a 50,000 buck deal, whatever … I need you to keep it as low as possible … if you do that …. I’ll pay you, you know, 50,000 dollars, 100,000 dollars… whatever you want … I’m a man of my word

Fining banks is all very well, but UBS had a net income of 909 million dollars in the first quarter of this year, i.e. 3.6 billion annualized. And this is a bad year. So a seven percent fine is no tragedy. Since LIBOR affects all of us, because it conditions mortgages, credit cards, and many other financial instruments, imposing a fine is really not enough. You can’t put a bank in jail, but you should make traders criminally liable for causing so much harm. Or to put it another way, for stealing so much money.

Away from all this mayhem, in the Sotavento, I had my lunch with thirty clam farmers, and after a while the guy beside me was talking so loud that he was regularly being shouted at to shut up. A bunch of the clam growers were men in their sixties, veterans of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea, and I heard a few stories about the war, most of them pretty grizzly.

I came away with booty. Four score oysters, so my shucking knife has been put to good use—and a large bag of clams. I did those with white wine, garlic, and coriander. And a dash of piri-piri, the chili oil that fast-food chains like South Africa’s Nando’s have anglicized to  peri-peri. Contrary to my policy about commercial sites, I’m going to hotlink Nando’s, as an example of a very successful business run by Portuguese, and because it has a fabulous website. Your kids will love it, though not the piri-piri.

The beautiful and lethal fruit of the Medronho, the Algarve's answer to maotai.

The beautiful and lethal berry of the Medronho, the Algarve’s answer to maotai.

From the Sotavento, I also brought back a water bottle.

Filled with (fire)water, a distillate made of figs, with a touch of medronho— a red berry, Arbutus unedo, in Latin.

One of the older guys explains medronho is often passed off as fig in the drink, and shows me how to test the contents. He pours some on his open palm, rubs it in a circle with the heel of his right hand—black arts. Then he holds out his palm in front of my nose. Here is the sweet smell of figs, as the alcohol evaporated by body heat peers into the soul of the aguardente.

“My grandfather taught me to do this, all the old timers tested it this way.” We smile, and drink to Christmas.

Hopefully this Christmas you’ll smile and drink with me too, rejoicing in the good things that make up our lives, spiritual and material blessings we so often underappreciate. Like freedom. And a sugar cube that allows our children to run forever.

My bottle is homemade, illegal, and extremely tasty. About the strength of Chinese maotai. The generous soul who gave it to me was concerned about the correct labelling of the product, lest some unsuspecting child take a swig. It’s labelled Gasolina de Avião—Airplane Fuel.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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