Bleeding George Washington, Bleeding America

By | November 2, 2022 | 0 Comments


In 1799 George Washington went riding in the rain and fell ill. He may have had pneumonia, which was often fatal before antibiotics. Or he may have had an abscess in his throat, which could have been treated with a simple incision.

Physicians were summoned and bled him, but his condition worsened. Did they conclude that bleeding was harmful and try another treatment? Did they at least conclude that bleeding was ineffective and stop it? No, the doctors concluded that they had not bled him enough, so they bled him repeatedly, taking perhaps three pints, until he died. He was 67.

Bloodletting was usually harmful, yet it persisted for centuries. Effective treatments for most diseases did not exist. But this does not explain why harmless remedies − honey, for example − were not used. Instead, countless patients were weakened or killed by removal of blood, which both the Bible and common sense tell us is essential for life.

There is a lesson here. Once we accept something as “good,” we often persist in doing it, even when the result is clearly bad − while telling ourselves that we just haven’t done enough of it. Does this lesson apply today?

For 1½ years, we have treated Covid-19 with masks, social distancing, and lockdowns. Tens of thousands of closed businesses have gone out of business, while millions of jobs have been lost. Closed schools resulted in 1½ years of lost education, which may or may not be made up later. But 1½ years of lost socialization and emotional growth are unlikely to be made up.

Small children have seen few faces outside their immediate family. Do they have impaired ability to read expressions, as if they had mild autism? We don’t know because we haven’t looked. Older children have spent all day on the computer. They may have studied. They may have played video games. They surely have rounded shoulders, near-sighted eyes, and flabby muscles.

But like George Washington’s physicians, we ignore the side effects of our treatment. After all, we are told, it is necessary to save lives. And when yet another surge in cases strikes, we think: “We must do more of what we have been doing. We haven’t done enough yet. Without it things would be even worse.”

But we do not think: “Maybe what we are doing isn’t working. Maybe it’s actually harmful. Maybe we should do less of it and try something else.”

So tell me precisely how – intellectually or morally – we are any different from George Washington’s physicians, who may have bled him to death? But that was in 1799. This is 2021. What’s our excuse?

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