May 23, 2020

Normal Hygiene?

By Glenn
Covid 19

What is normal?  Normal is what we have been doing most, if not all, of our lives.  We don’t notice the abnormal unless it is a large or sudden disruption to our normal.  Most of the time, it is not.  Our lives and habits slowly change overtime.

My dad used to tell of a big break from his normal.  As a child, he spoke French at home.  Like many Cajun families, French was the normal at home.  When he went to school, however, the school forced him to speak English.  He experienced real physical pain for living normally.  Because of that change in his life, English was always my normal.  

The last 200 years of human history has been one wave after another of change.  It is hard to think of any aspect of the human experience that remains untouched by change.  If we took a group of humans from 300 years ago and dropped them into today’s society, everything, except their human anatomy, would set them apart.  Their language, manners, and clothes would mark them as abnormal.  Most of all, there would be a chasm of personal hygiene between us and them.

If you have ever seen pictures of nineteenth century children in long, open gowns, you probably thought “how cute.”  You may not have known the ugly reality behind that cuteness.  Diapers are a recent addition to personal hygiene.  Before diapers children simply squatted where they were to defecate or urinate.  Parents then used a handy shovel and pail of sand to scope and absorb the waste.  Safety pins destroyed this normal.  Thankfully, diapers are now normal.

Adults were not much better.  Bathing was often a once a year event.  It was common sense that dirt and grim made it harder for people to get sick.  Even doctors didn’t wash their hands on a regular basis.  In 1847 Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis showed with data that hand washing could reduce the death rate in obstetrical clinics.  Since Semmelweis’ proposal disrupted the normal, his colleagues rejected his idea as absurd.  Today, most of us take a daily bath, wash our hands after using the restroom and before eating.  It is now normal.

Public health also evolved in the nineteenth century but not until the very end.   Most cities were open cesspools.  Both humans and animals used the streets to relieve themselves.  In the 1880s cities like Paris rediscovered Roman sewage systems and transformed their environment cleaning the streets and redirecting the waste into vast underground channels.  It took laws to create a new normal.  Now, humans and animals must find a better spot.  Humans must to clean up after their animals. 

There is so much about personal hygiene that we take for granted today.  Our imaginary group from 300 years ago would find none of it normal.  What would they think of the sign “No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service”?  Would they think we are crazy?  Maybe, but it is simply an evolving aspect of public health.  We wash our hands and cover our bodies to protect our neighbors.  

Masks are no different.  They reduce our chances of infecting others with Covid 19.  They’ve been proven effective in Asia.  Until there is a vaccine to protect us from each other, masks should become as normal as diapers, going to the bathroom, flushing a toilet and washing your hands. 

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