Covid-19 is not the first pandemic to stop the world in its tracks. Ruby Heyward chats to Patrick McCunnie about how his memories of growing up in Scotland as polio took its toll.
Tucked away on a hill in Livingstone are the old school grounds, a charming old teacher’s quarters, a heritage walnut tree that drops treats, and a view of yellowing trees.
It is where retired teacher Patrick McCunnie lives with wife Sara.
The couple moved to the area near Duntroon eight years ago, and have been visited by many people with connections to the old school – including a former principal who reminisced about spending the first six weeks of his posting holed up because the school closed due to the polio outbreak.
At the same time, a young Mr McCunnie was living in the “big industrial city” of Glasgow, Scotland where polio was also taking its toll.
“[It was] a tremendous cultural fear,” Mr McCunnie said.
“Polio seemed to be highly contagious and everywhere.”
He remembers the posters instructing people to use their hankies and elbows to prevent its spread – and the phrase “coughs and sneezes spread diseases” was almost a mantra.
“Polio was a significant issue when I was growing up … you did not want to get [it].
“It was the most awful and debilitating disease to have.”
As a boy, it was not uncommon for friends to disappear for six months to a year because of the disease, he said. Some would return “permanently incapacitated”.
“A significant minority spent their time in a lung machine because of an iron lung.. they couldn’t move [and it would] breathe for them.
“It was terrifying … you could see the fear in our parents.”
When the vaccine came to Glasgow it was treated like a miracle, he said.
According to the World Health Organisation, the first polio vaccine was used in 1955 – the year Mr McCunnie was born – and an oral vaccine was first used in 1961.
“When I was growing up there was a unified voice about polio, there was no dissonance … today we have a cacophony of different voices.”
He spoke of a cultural shift away from social solidarity to a sense of entitlement and the right of refusal.
“We did have a lot more faith in the system.
“When people are anti-vax, I instantly remember when I got my sugar lump [oral vaccine].”
He also remembered what a relief it was to his parents.
And he shared that relief when the Covid-19 vaccine was announced.
“I feel very grateful that the Government made all of the decisions it did … because I don’t want to die, and I would have been one of the people to die.”