The Fresh Air Fund is a charity that sends New York City kids to its wooded summer camps in upstate Fishkill, 70 miles away. In 1978 and 1979, I worked as a counselor at one of those camps.
My live-in workplace, Hidden Valley, hosted 144 kids for each summer’s three 17-day encampments. Half of the kids at Hidden Valley were disabled in some way or other; anything from having severe epilepsy, sickle cell anemia, emotional disorders, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or spina bifida, to being deaf, cognitively-challenged or wheelchair-bound. The idea was to mainstream the disabled and to give a respite to the parents of these kids by sending away two of their children—one disabled and the other, able-bodied—the latter of whom could also help counselors to understand and meet the special, logistical needs of their disabled sibling.
Overall, the concept worked very well. I could sketch many characters and tell many specific stories from those summers. There were some sad or poignant moments. And working with kids 16 hours/day, 6 days/week was sometimes mentally taxing. But most of the time, there was abundant goodwill and fun. Kids barred from attending Hidden Valley—and other camps—due to Covid closures missed out on many good experiences and memories. So did the counselors.
Disabled or not, the kids tended to keep it real. They said what they were thinking. Often, their perspectives were quite funny.
Ninety-five percent of the camp’s kids were Black or Puerto Rican. Having lived among Black folks, I’ve noticed that an often-used element of Black humor is to compare other peoples’ appearances to those of celebrities.
Twelve kids and two counselors shared a cabin. Ronald was the only Caucasian in my cabin of 10-11 year-olds. Ronald was amiably slow-witted and extremely pale, with freckles and reddish hair.
His cheeky Black cabinmates had a nickname for Ronald:
While this moniker wasn’t inclusive, those who heard it, including me, laughed in spite of themselves. Pop culture references are intrinsically amusing. If you had watched the old black & white TV Superman episodes, hearing “Perry White” repurposed to describe an 11 year-old was incongruous and clever.
Regardless of whether one sees it as funny and/or mean, this nickname reflected an obvious truth: Ronald looked different from his cabinmates and the rest of the campers.
During Coronamania, the government and media should have taken a page out of the camp kids’ book: don’t pretend that you don’t see obvious differences. Almost zero healthy people under 70 died from Covid. Why act like everyone was at risk?
The eagerness, during the past three years, to disingenuously lump everyone into the same Covid risk group seems especially odd in a culture that exalts diversity, focuses on our demographic differences rather than our similarities and strongly encourages people to be themselves, at least when it fits some larger sociopolitical agenda.
“One size fits all” mitigation also directly contradicted the medical hype of the past 25 years. Well before March, 2020, hospital systems were running ads touting their “personalized” approach to medicine that carefully considered, e.g., each patient’s sex, race, family histories and even their hobbies. Genomics researchers have taken medical personalization one step beyond, touting their overall enterprise to obtain billions in grants by arguing that analyzing each patient’s DNA would enable doctors to tailor treatments to individuals’ unique genetic dispositions.
During a 1998 Princeton University guest lecture, I heard NIH Director Francis Collins assert that such patient-specific knowledge of genomics would give medicine “power tools” to improve medical outcomes.