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Petersen reflects on'Enemy of the People'

by Dr. Phil Petersen, Clearwater Valley Health

In 1882, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen published his play "An Enemy of the People."

In this play, a physician in a resort town in Norway finds that the public baths are contaminated and are making people ill. He goes to his brother, the mayor of the town, and requests that the baths be closed and repairs made to make them safe again. To his surprise, he is rebuffed, told to be quiet, and told that it isn't as bad as he thinks. The mayor looks at the baths as the economic revitalization of his town and feels it is essential to keep them open. When the physician decides to go to the public through the newspaper, the publisher is convinced by the mayor to not print the story. The play culminates in a public meeting where a mob mentality develops, and the physician is branded an enemy of the people. He has to be protected from the mob as he exits the meeting, and the mob attacks his house, breaking all of the windows. He is discharged from his position, his daughter is fired from her job as a teacher, his children are bullied at school, and the friend who helped him get home safely is fired from his job.

I first read this play over two decades ago. It was powerful then, but even more powerful when I dusted it off last month and read it again. The dynamics depicted in the play have gone on throughout the Covid pandemic, starting in China with the arrest of the physician who first reported the cluster of cases in Wuhan. Here in the United States there has been a concerted effort to discredit the institutions that work to maintain public health. In some cases, we have seen mob like intimidation of public health figures, even in our home state of Idaho. I personally have been accused of lying, falsifying death certificates, hoarding medications for myself, and being an active part of the "conspiracy," among other things.

I can certainly understand that people would be irritated by wearing a mask, or by events being cancelled or postponed. I would expect business and service people to be angry at their losses during this pandemic. I would be angry too. What I don't understand is the anti-covid vaccine campaign. You see, the vaccine is our ticket out of this mess. If enough people were vaccinated, it would be the end of masks, restrictions, and closures from the pandemic.

The intensity of the worldwide research on covid probably exceeds that of any infectious phenomenon in history. The speed at which the virus was identified, the RNA sequenced and vaccines developed is mind boggling. The number of studies evaluating treatment options, both pharmaceutical and supportive, is amazing. We have learned a lot about how to best manage the pulmonary function of a severe covid pneumonia. There are many things we do differently than we did early in the pandemic.

With the literally hundreds of drug studies we have learned that there is no medication that will reliably prevent a person with covid pneumonia from going to the ICU, going into respiratory failure, or dying. There are some medications that will help if given early. Some medications that will help if given late in the course. And some medications that we thought at one point might be useful, but in the end proved to be ineffective. But none of them can be relied on to save a life.

What does reliably save a life is to be vaccinated before being exposed. That is what the research shows. And that is what we are seeing clinically. When taking care of a sick patient with covid pneumonia, I can't help but thinking if they had been vaccinated they wouldn't be here. They would be out fishing or hiking or gardening or something. Anything would be better than struggling for breath in the isolation ward. I would like to see my fellow citizens all vaccinated. I don't think it will happen. And from my perspective that is sad. Because it is clear that the vaccine is our ticket out of the Covid mess we are in.

Photo: Dr. Phil Petersen

Window on the Clearwater
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