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John Nichols: Locking down for public health is a Wisconsin idea

John Nichols: Locking down for public health is a Wisconsin idea

Poster warns of flu (copy)

This poster from 1918 warns factory workers of the symptoms and prevention of the flu.

There is a bit of debate about whether locking down to beat a pandemic is the right response. To be clear, the debate is not among epidemiologists or public health experts; they see the value of the sort of #StayAtHome orders that Gov. Tony Evers and Democratic and Republican governors nationwide have issued to tackle COVID-19. Rather, the debate is a political one.

That's nothing new.

A century ago, Wisconsin progressives made public health initiatives central to their “Wisconsin Idea” approach to governing, while the Socialists who led Milwaukee declared, “The public health is the most vital concern of the people.” Socialist Mayors Emil Seidel, Dan Hoan and Frank Zeidler were so determined to stop the spread of infectious diseases with better sanitation that they came to be known as “sewer socialists.”

The Socialists saw public health initiatives necessary parts of an economic and social justice agenda. To their view, health and safety were class issues. In a “Municipal Campaign Book” of what was then known as the Social-Democratic Party, Socialist campaigners explained in the early 1910s: “Over on Prospect Avenue, where the big, roomy houses have an outlook over the lake; where the walls of the houses never bump against each other, health and sanitation are not quite the same problems they are in other parts of Milwaukee.”

The campaign book continued:

“In other parts of the city the walls stand close to each other, and the houses are jammed for space. In many of these sunlight is a forbidden visitor. Now, an old Italian saying holds: 'Where the sunlight does not go, the doctor does.' And it is the people in the little houses on the back streets who have the least advantages in the fight for health. When something goes wrong with the sanitation or the ventilation of a Hackett Avenue home, the (wealthy) people on that street know what to do. They call in a doctor or some other expert. They have the money to hire this kind of service. The people in the little houses on the back street — the working class folks — they have to work long hours and they don’t have the time to watch these things as they would like to. And when something does go wrong, most often they can’t afford to hire the doctors and plumbers and other specialists to help matters get straightened out. … The working people, many of them, don’t call for a doctor until the case looks desperate.”

The Socialists explained, “These are some of the reasons why rich people have a lower death rate than poor people. The vital statistics show clearly that money will buy health — that money will buy service to fight back the ravages of disease and the approach, of death — that, the more money YOU have, the better are your chances against the cunning of disease and the grapple of death.”

The Socialists proposed to champion the interests of “the people in the little houses on the back streets,” which was smart policy and smart politics. In the spring of 1918, for instance, the Socialist ticket led by incumbent Mayor Dan Hoan swept to victory. A few months later, the country was ravaged by an influenza pandemic that Wisconsin’s state Board of Health declared in December of that year would "forever be remembered as the most disastrous calamity that has ever been visited upon the people of Wisconsin."

On Oct. 10, 1918, as the influenza pandemic spread, the state Health Officer, Dr. Cornelius A. Harper, took the extraordinary step of ordering all public institutions in Wisconsin closed. “In no other state was such a comprehensive order issued,” explained the Wisconsin Historical Society, “and it stayed in effect until the epidemic burned itself out in late December.”

Harper, an ally of Gov. and Sen. Robert M. La Follette, counted on what the Historical Society described as “Wisconsin's Progressive Era faith in the ability — indeed the responsibility — of government to act assertively in the civic interest.”

Harper worked closely with Hoan and the Socialists in Milwaukee. As Kevin Abing, the archivist at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, recounted, “Backed by Mayor Dan Hoan, the Common Council and State Health Department, (Milwaukee Health Commissioner George) Ruhland adopted extreme measures to check the epidemic. On October 11, he ordered all theaters, movie houses, public dances and indoor amusements closed until further notice.”

Ruhland banned “special department store sales, football games, boxing matches, flag-raising ceremonies, political meetings and all other public gatherings,” Abing recalled in a recent Milwaukee Independent essay, which noted that “Ruhland also urged residents to avoid crowding in streetcars and elevators and closed two core Milwaukee institutions — saloons and churches — with exceptions.” Milwaukeeans were allowed to patronize saloons if they agreed to “buy a drink and leave.”

The firm embrace of a public health ethic yielded results. While the national death rate was 4.39 per thousand people, Wisconsin’s was just 2.91 per thousand — one of the lowest rates in the country. And Milwaukee’s death rate — 2.56 per 1,000 — was the second-best ratio for any major city in the country.

Hoan never stopped pushing public health as a social justice issue. By the 1930s, Milwaukee was so advanced in its approach that it topped national studies of the healthiest cities, as the mayor explained, "the savings in medical and hospital expense, added to the actual savings in lives, not to speak of suffering and of weakened bodies, far outweigh the almost nominal cost in tax dollars of a progressive and expanding municipal health progress.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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"There will be more litigation, and Gov. Evers will have to have his veto pen at the ready to block Vos' gerrymandered maps. But this is a fight that can, and must, be won in order to restore the will of the people as the guiding premise for Wisconsin elections."