In this time of protests against social distancing and quarantine, it’s instructive to remember the case of “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, a healthy carrier of typhoid fever who infected at least 125 people. Although initially quarantined, after she was released promising to do non-cooking-related domestic chores only, she changed her name and went right back to cooking and contaminating more people. She simply wouldn’t believe that it was possible for her to carry the disease without having any symptoms herself.

Of course, as the article linked above points out, she’s not entirely to blame. It doesn’t seem like the medical establishment of the day was really interested in helping her, and we certainly didn’t have the social aid infrastructures then that we do now. She had to work, lest she starve. And it’s hard to blame her for wanting to go back to cooking, as it was apparently the only trade she really knew.

All the same, in the here and now, we have all these people wanting to go back to work at their trades, or just gather in parks and such places in violation of the stay-at-home orders, even though doing so could lead to the further spread of COVID-19 (just as Mary’s return to work spread typhus). And for much the same reason as Mary—they also need to work, lest they starve, because the social aid infrastructure we currently have still isn’t enough for them to live on. And just like Mary, many of them don’t believe that the illness is that bad, or that their going back to work could actually contribute to passing it on. (Or else they just don’t care.) As with climate change or so many other issues, they believe what they want to believe, and cherry-pick evidence for “proof.”

What are we to do when so much of our entire society is Typhoid Mary? Even if we were able to provide a better stipend, it still wouldn’t be enough for many of them, and some of them just want to go back to work for non-financial reasons.

I suppose it will be interesting to see how all this shakes out. But I can tell you this—I’m a lot happier looking back on the “interesting” story of Typhoid Mary than I would have been to have lived through those days.