Polio and Carnival: A lesson for today

In this file photo, masqueraders from the band Yuma enjoy themselves on Carnival Tuesday, February 25, 2020 at the Socadrome. Photo by Roger Jacob
In this file photo, masqueraders from the band Yuma enjoy themselves on Carnival Tuesday, February 25, 2020 at the Socadrome. Photo by Roger Jacob

THIS MONTH marks exactly 50 years since Carnival was postponed because of a polio outbreak.

Today, as we continue to face a public health emergency that yet again places the festival and its parameters in doubt, it is worth looking back at that moment in history to see what lessons can be learned.

It is also worth considering the history of polio as a whole and the role played by vaccination in fighting it.

On Saturday, the Prime Minister suggested Carnival could take place this year, but on a much smaller scale and under strict health protocols. Whatever the details under consideration, it is clear things cannot be as they were pre-pandemic.

In 1972, authorities postponed Carnival after 163 polio cases came to light. Ten people had died.

The developments were reported in the international press, including the New York Times, which described Carnival as “one of the world’s great Mardi Gras celebrations.”

That paper’s report said Health Minister Francis Prevatt had announced the postponement “to allow a nationwide polio immunisation program to take its full effect.”

This country cancelled Carnival last year and there are many who expect another cancellation – in spirit if not in form – this year as well. We have already surpassed 100,000 cases of covid19. More than 3,200 people have died. There are thousands of active cases.

Carnival is an important part of our culture. Some people depend on it for much of their living.

Many use the festival to relieve stress, and given the frustrations of the pandemic, they would no doubt like to vent. But with deaths mounting, many others are in no mood to ramajay.

Nor can they afford to, given the way the economy has been affected. The Carnival sector has been badly hit, in particular, with hundreds of millions in revenue forgone. (Though this has been offset by the savings of Carnival agencies and ministries.)

If small-scale events do take place, they should take place on the strength of a revitalised vaccination programme and an improvement in the vaccination rate. Postponement should be an option.

In this regard, the authorities would do well to look back at the role of vaccination in fighting polio and to tell that story more.

Many Trinidadians might still remember the polio outbreak of 1972 or know someone who has experience with the disease. Last year, David Rudder, 68, disclosed that a vaccine might have saved him from the disease’s effects.

It is because of vaccination that polio has more or less disappeared. The Americas were declared polio-free in 1994.

Vaccination worked so well in 1972, the authorities were able to allow Carnival in May and then as usual in early 1973.

At a time of vaccine hesitancy fuelled by misinformation, too many people seem unaware of how polio was conquered because of vaccination.

This year’s anniversary is an opportunity for the authorities to correct that.


"Polio and Carnival: A lesson for today"

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