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NPR Asks: Can the Warsaw Ghetto Teach Us Something about Fighting COVID?

There was quite a bit of anger on social media over a recent NPR piece titled “The Warsaw Ghetto Can Teach The World How To Beat Back An Outbreak.” I’m not unsympathetic to those who push back against the increasingly frivolous political appropriation of Holocaust victims. Seem to me, though, it’s something of an overreaction in this case. There’s nothing saying Americans can’t learn lessons from tragedy and evil. The real problem with the NPR piece is that it stresses the wrong lesson.

The article revolves around a recent study claiming that in 1941, Jewish “social distancing, hygiene and food supplies to supplement the meager rations provided by the Nazis” might have been responsible for a big drop cases of typhus, a highly contagious bacterial disease carried by lice and spread in unsanitary conditions. It was all, of course, in self-preservation. The Germans, who had lost millions to the disease during and after the First World War, were also scared that the disease would spread to the general population and army. The Nazis, who associated typhus with Jews, were obsessed with disinfecting those in forced labor and concentration camps as well.

I’m no doctor, but it unsurprising to learn that better rations, “social distancing,” and improved sanitary conditions would help inhibit the spread of lice and boost survival rates of typhoid.

The piece deteriorates, however, when NPR turns to a New York doctor who lectures Americans on taking the disease more “seriously,” which has absolutely nothing to do with Warsaw. Americans locked down the entire economy for months. Most of us take it quite seriously. And the lesson I take from reading about 460,000 innocent people being crammed into a pitiable urban prison to await death is that societal tradeoffs aren’t taken seriously enough — and that while overall safety, low infection rates and even fatality rates, are important, they aren’t the only measures of “success” or “failure” in a free nation.

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