Of all the illustrious graduates of my high school, Stuyvesant, the greatest, I think, was Jonas Salk, the person behind the first safe and effective polio vaccine, released in 1955. I clearly remember the fear as a child that came with each summer, the dread of becoming one of the victims of the annual polio epidemic, which in 1952 amounted to nearly 60,000 cases—more than 3,000 deaths and 20,000 left with disabling paralysis. Most victims were children. Along with nearly every other child in America, I received my polio shot soon after the Salk vaccine became available and from then on I enjoyed summers at the beach and pool unconcerned about contracting the disease. The most frightening health problem in post-war America vanished overnight.
Today the most generous philanthropists in world history are trying to remove the remnants of this scourge for the rest of the world’s children. For their effort, Bill and Melinda Gates have recently been criticized. The editor of the influential medical journal, Lancet, said that the Gates are obsessed with wiping out this disease. “Global health does not depend on polio eradication,” he twitted.
In the last two years, the Gates foundation has given$1.3 billion towards the effort. By contrast, a total of $500 million has been spent in 14 years to wipe out smallpox.
The argument against the Gates here is two-fold: the money can be better spent elsewhere; and the best that can be achieved with polio is control, not eradication.
It strikes me as wrong to criticize the Gates foundation in public this way. I will take the experts at their word that more could be accomplished in addressing world health problems by spending the money differently. But this is his choice, his priority.
How a person chooses to spend time and money can always be criticized and sometimes for good reason. But this money is going to help others. My activism has been taken to task by one person or another over the years for being focused on the wrong thing. Supporting a school in Africa? There’s hunger down the street. Teaching poetry to handicapped children and prisoners? There’s a war to stop. You get the idea.
But the efforts are mine, reflecting what touches me, what I think I can do, what most suits my abilities, talents and temperament.
I don’t know why Gates has latched on to polio or why he doesn’t now shift the resources to another illness that plagues the world. But I look at this and think: more people should be doing what he is doing. He is to be admired, not vilified.
(I have more to say about charitable giving in two short stories “Shila” and “Girls in Paradise.” They can be accessed at this site under Publications. Then press the tab for The Harder Right.)