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Tom Purcell: Viruses and responses differ, Human nature does not

The way my siblings and I responded to my family’s chicken-pox outbreak in 1973 may shed light on Americans’ responses to COVID-19 in 2020.

I was about 10 and remember how differently my five sisters responded to that highly contagious bug.

To prevent its spread, our family doctor ordered us to wash our hands regularly; keep all surfaces, devices and furnishings in the house extra-clean; and maintain our distance from infected siblings.

“If you do come down with chicken pox,” said the doctor, “do not touch or scratch the infected areas of your skin or it will spread it all the more.”

My oldest sister, Kathy, complied completely with the doctor’s orders. Like all my sisters, she’s still obsessive about keeping her home clean.

Amazingly, she never once gave into the urge to scratch her one small chicken-pox bump in the center of her forehead. Nearly 50 years later, researchers still try to determine the source of her incredible discipline.

My middle sisters did their best to comply but, being easy-going middle children, weren’t much concerned about the virus, one way or another. They didn’t understand what all the hullaballoo was about and came through with minimal infection and fuss.

My second-born sister, however, took an approach that would have made “live and let live” libertarian icon Friedrich Hayek proud.

On the rare occasions when she didn’t lock herself in her bedroom, she carefully navigated the house covered in a freshly washed quilt. She carried a Lysol spray can and doused anything and anyone within 10 feet.

Then there was me – a model for the total lack of chicken-pox discipline.

No sooner did I have one bump than I commenced scratching it from dawn to dusk.

In one week’s time, I had so many bumps, even my loving mother suggested it would be best for the family’s appetite if I stopped joining them for dinner – though, to her credit, she did prevent my father from making me soak in a tub of Epsom salts and diesel fuel.

I share my family’s unpleasant chicken-pox story because it illustrates how different personalities respond differently to virus outbreaks.

Polls have shown that Republicans (who include more conservative “live and let live” thinkers who are more likely to let individuals make their own health choices) differ considerably from Democrats (who include more thinkers supportive of sweeping government restrictions to prevent spread) on how to deal with COVID-19.

On one end of the spectrum are people like my oldest sister, who understand and follow the recommended guidelines to protect themselves and others.

On the other end are chicken-pox fools like me, who do nothing to prevent the spread of a virus and put everyone at risk.

There are dictators who shut down everything, like my second-born sister. And there are many people, like my middle sisters, who take care of themselves just fine without needing government to hurt millions of businesses and individuals.

That’s human nature, I suppose, which no human being or government can ever change – whether the virus in question is chicken pox or COVID-19.

Perhaps if our political leaders took all of our differing personalities and points of view into consideration, they would design more effective responses that a greater majority of people would support.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is syndicated by Cagle Cartoons. Email Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.