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What would Jonas Salk say?

April 20, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Jonathan Salk
The Hill, April 13, 2020

There’s a lot of speculation about a COVID-19 vaccine, from false memes that need debunking, to physicians writing about renewed appreciation and longing for medical victories like the development of the first effective polio vaccine. Hailed as medical miracle, the vaccine was announced 65 years ago yesterday [April 12, 1955].

Dr. Jonas Salk, who led the team that developed it, was my father. Today, people often ask me, what he would have thought or done about our current pandemic. My full answer may not be the one they expect.

Yes, he certainly would have supported and participated in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. He would have understood the urgency of seeking a vaccine and the grave responsibility to make it safe and effective. And he would have decried the tragic, sometimes preventable loss of life we are witnessing around the world.

But here’s the surprising part: Even though he’s the historical figure identified with the triumph of medical science, he would have emphasized that there is more to eradicating disease than science alone. It also involves human-to-human social, political and economic relationships.

If he were here now, he would implore us to remember what made it possible to defeat polio: a national effort to develop and test the vaccine and a world-wide effort to make vaccination available to everyone without profit. Millions donated money and volunteered their children for the largest field trial in public health history. International organizations and governments worked to ensure the entire world could get vaccinated.

My father would insist on also making COVID-19 screening, treatment and vaccination available to all of us, regardless of where we live or our social or economic standing. He would argue that doing so is not only morally right, but profoundly in our national and global interest. When it comes to infectious disease, health — unlike wealth — can’t be hoarded by the few. As long as a virus is circulating in an unimmunized population, it’s a threat to all, and it’s in all our interests to contain, prevent and eradicate it.

But he wouldn’t have stopped there. He would have noted what implications the pandemic holds for our long-term future, and he would have connected it to the transformation we need at this juncture in human history if we are to survive.

From the 1970s until his death in 1995, he thought deeply about this transformation and how we as a species might adapt successfully to population pressures and the approach of planetary limits. He examined the evidence and concluded we must evolve socially. In nature, evolutionary pressures and natural selection bear on competing individuals, but in the case of humans, we became evolutionarily successful through cooperation. My father believed that our future survival would depend on the values of collective human and planetary well-being becoming the drivers of our social, economic and political lives.

In his book A New Reality he showed that population growth is slowing and starting to plateau, a unique inflection point in human history that could also prompt a turn in our value system away from competition and independence and towards cooperation and interdependence. In an earlier book, The Survival of the Wisest, he argued that wisdom is the quality that will allow us to adapt and survive in conditions we have never encountered before.

He would have recognized the COVID-19 pandemic not only as something to be feared and fought, but also as a moment to embrace wisdom. He would have seen this crisis as an opportunity to shift from individualism to interdependence. He would have told us that fighting the pandemic demands replacing the “us first,” win/lose mindset with a “we together,” win/win mindset, and he would have advised that, paradoxically, self-interest in this case is best served by generosity. He would have applauded cooperation and knowledge sharing among scientists and the altruism of medical workers and volunteers. He would have seconded New York’s plea for mutual aid: “Help us now and we’ll help you later.” And he would argue we need to implement that mutuality at every level, from individual relationships to global society.

He might point out the folly of placing material and economic value ahead of human life, as many of us are doing amid the pandemic. With an eyebrow arched, he might warn of the consequences of ignoring the workings of nature and continuing to pursue boundless growth, competition and selfishness. He would let us know that if we persist in that way, we will be sowing the seeds of more suffering and, ultimately, our extinction.

But my father was a scientist and an evidence-based thinker. Based on what he knew of evolution, he believed evolutionary pressures would nudge us in the right direction. He would have seen the pandemic as just such a nudge and would have appreciated the irony that a deadly virus, the same thing that prompted the advancement of medical science 65 years ago, might lead us now to advance social evolution toward a healthier, more cooperative, interdependent world where we can not only survive but thrive — if we only listen.

Dr. Jonathan Salk is a practicing psychiatrist and teaches at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “A New Reality,” the book he co-authored with his father Dr. Jonas Salk, was recently updated and republished.


A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future

By Jonas Salk and Jonathan Salk

The sigmoid growth curve consists of two sections of different shape: the upturned portion describes a phase of progressive acceleration of growth (Epoch A – past human life); the second portion is downturned and describes a phase of progressive deceleration (Epoch B – moving into the future from the current point of inflection). The difference in shape between the two portions of the curve suggests both quantitative and qualitative differences in human life between the two periods of time. It not only indicates differences in population growth patterns but also suggests differences in the characteristics of prevailing conditions and the nature of human life in the two periods.

Perhaps the clearest example of the shift from A to B is that of resource use. During the period of exploration and expansion by European colonial powers and the United States, resources seemed limitless. They could be exploited without regard for the effects either of consumption or of the disposal of waste. This would correspond to Epoch A, in which positive value was placed on growth, consumption, and unlimited use of resources.

In the last 50 to 75 years, however, there has been increasing awareness that resources are limited and that unfettered consumption, along with disregard for the effects of waste products, endangers our survival. Our adaptive response has been to place increasing value on awareness of limits, on conservation, and on sustainability.

Thus, the conditions of Epoch A support and are consistent with values of unlimited growth and consumption, while the different conditions of Epoch B will lead to the different values of sustainability and conservation.

In Epoch A, competition and the demands of persistent, accelerating growth were inherently associated with either/or attitudes and philosophies and the prevalence of win-lose strategies in the resolution of conflict. People or nations saw the world as a place on which any benefit to the other is a loss or detriment to the self. In Epoch B, however, the tendency toward balance, collaboration, and interdependence will be based upon and evoke a philosophy of both/and and the development of win-win strategies.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

Understandably, much is being written about the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on how important it would be to have had in place an efficient and effective universal health program such as single payer Medicare for All. That would not have prevented the pandemic, but, very importantly, it would have removed financial barriers to health care – a very serious defect in the U.S. health care financing system, now made even worse by the loss of employment and, for many, the consequent loss of employer-sponsored health insurance.

Jonathan Salk writes about how his father, Jonas Salk, the developer of the first effective polio vaccine, would have certainly supported and participated in expediting the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Further, he would also have insisted on making COVID-19 screening, treatment and vaccination available to all of us regardless of our social or economic standing, just as if we did have a Medicare for All program in place.

But Jonas and Jonathan Salk have a greater message for us. In their book, “A New Reality,” they describe how we seem to be at an inflection point moving from an epoch of accelerated growth of mankind in which self interest prevailed (us first or win-lose mindset) to an epoch of decelerated growth in which social solidarity prevails (we together win/win mindset). It is not as if we are moving away from self interest and on to solidarity, rather we are discovering that the epoch of deceleration is best served by solidarity since it automatically serves the interests of the self in addition to the interests of society as a whole.

The political polarization in Congress is really unfortunate. It’s too bad they haven’t sat down and discussed how everyone wins with single payer Medicare for All. It is true that wealthier individuals would pay more into the system, but their incomes would still be much greater than the rest of us, and their taxes would not be enough to change their lifestyle in the least. They would have other benefits such as the satisfaction that their employees would always have health care, as would their relatives and friends who may be in a financial bind; they would have less exposure to infectious diseases in the community, such as TB, since those illnesses would be cared for; the homeless would no longer distress them since they would receive needed mental health care and appropriate social services; but, most importantly, they would have the satisfaction of knowing that, in the epoch we are entering, we’re all in this together and we can do it without them having to give up their privileges of wealth (only a little bit in taxes that they’ll never notice unless their accountant points it out).

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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