Between 1670 and 1775 South Carolinians faced fifty-nine major epidemics. Yellow fever struck eighteen times, smallpox nine, and influenza four. Some years colonists had to confront multiple threats. In 1718, 1732, and 1758 South Carolinians suffered with both yellow fever and smallpox. In addition, malaria became endemic. One visitor reported that he had never seen “air so unhealthful.” The colonists had “had fevers all year long from which those attacked seldom recover.” (from Walter Edgar’s South Carolina, A History p156)
Walter Edgar goes on to discuss the 80% childhood mortality rate inflicted by these epidemics and the fact that one-third of those who reached age twenty would not live to see age forty. A vast loss of life and opportunity to the early colonists.
During the 1760 smallpox epidemic in Charleston, some 6,000 residents were infected out of a total of 8,000. There were 730 deaths. If we apply modern terminology to the infection rate, Charleston achieved “herd immunity” at the cost of a nine percent death rate.
Unlike modern South Carolinians, the residents of Charleston had few choices to combat an outbreak like smallpox. They could flee the city, remain in the city and chance infection, or submit to inoculation, a type of vaccination that involved exposing individuals to a milder form of the virus. Inoculation was just beginning to gain favor when the news media of the day came out against it. Caving in to mounting political pressure, inoculation was banned by the South Carolina House of Commons in May 1760. However, common sense and advancing medical knowledge won out and even George Washington would later require the members of his Continental Army to be inoculated against smallpox. It would take another 200 years for smallpox to be globally eradicated.
Common sense and advancing medical knowledge – these two forces are the reason that South Carolinians are not dealing with yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, influenza as well as COVID-19 today. Imagine the loss of life and wealth if we were. Common sense seems to be at a premium these days for those who rally behind “conservative” politicians who have politicized COVID-19 for their own devices. These “conservative” politicians are intellectually dishonest. They cloak themselves as defenders of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness while disputing the medical knowledge that grants us an easier time in acquiring the same.
I am not a lawyer but I understand the concept of trying to determine the original intent of the Framers of our Constitution. As a South Carolina lawmaker, I attempt to look backwards in our history for guideposts pointing toward the future. I suspect that our ancestors would have taken issue with the sudden reopening of South Carolina with COVID-19 still lingering. They would have pointed out that we are a stiff-necked and ungrateful generation. We have the technology to slow and stop the spread of the virus, yet we deny the medical knowledge that is our inheritance, our fruit of liberty. They would also know not to take medical advice from a politician. You never know which politician might still carry a vial of leeches on him.