We have reached our Dr. Stockman moment.
In Ibsen’s classic drama, An Enemy of the People, Dr. Thomas Stockman has discovered that the waters in his town’s famed spa are poisoning the guests. He pleads with his brother, the Mayor, to close the lucrative attraction. But Mayor Peter Stockman refuses to shut down and repair the toxic baths.
“Have you taken the trouble to consider what your proposed alterations would cost?” the Mayor asks his brother. “And do you suppose anyone would come near the place after it had got about that the water was dangerous?”
And there it is. Ibsen brings us to that place where economic health trumps public health.
Sound familiar? It should. Because we face a similar conflict today. A president and his administration are pushing to “reopen” the economy despite express warnings from medical experts about the perils of premature action.
We have been down this road before. This is not the first time that the common good and the bottom line have faced off. In the midst of one pandemic, we need only look to the history of the 1918 pandemic, a story told in my book More Deadly Than War.
What was later called the Spanish flu emerged in March 1918, blossoming into an epidemic on army bases where young Americans were training for Europe’s trenches. After slacking in summertime, the outbreak returned in a second wave, even more swift and lethal, hitting American ports like Boston in September 1918. Striking down soldiers and sailors by the thousands, it jumped from the military to the civilian population. Seeing “bodies stacked like cordwood,” army doctors wondered if they were witnessing a new plague. The Spanish flu was carried to other ports and military bases, including those near Philadelphia.
But to Philadelphia’s civil authorities, it was “just the flu.” And Philadelphia was planning a parade – a grandiose show of patriotism and pride to promote the sale of Liberty Loans. These war bonds were marketed through an intense nationwide propaganda campaign that made buying these bonds an act of allegiance. Woe to those “slackers” who didn’t “do their part.”
As Philadelphia planned its spectacle, the city’s director of public health knew better. A gynecologist, and an appointee loyal to Philadelphia’s notoriously corrupt political machine, Dr. Wilmer Krusen was warned to cancel the parade. But Dr. Krusen allowed the show to go on. He assured the public that recent military deaths were from “old-fashioned influenza or grip.” His words were a harbinger of the president’s in January. “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
It wasn’t. As the parade got underway on September 28, 1918, some 200,000 people jammed Philadelphia’s main street, packed eight deep on the sidewalks. Within seventy-two hours of that parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s hospitals was filled.
On October 3, most public spaces –schools, churches, theaters, and pool halls –were officially closed. The delayed lockdown to “flatten the curve” was too little, too late for many in the City of Brotherly Love. Within weeks, more than 12,000 people died in Philadelphia before the epidemic crested there.
Dr. Krusen was aware of the risks posed when he allowed the parade to step off. But he was answering to political and economic concerns, much like the Mayor in Ibsen’s play, and so many economists and administration officials echoing the president’s call to reopen the economy.
History is replete with Dr. Krusen’s counterparts—those scientists and other people who dared challenge authority. Take Giordano Bruno for example. Born in 1548, Bruno became a priest and a learned mathematician. But he was also a free thinker and, in 1584, published his concept that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of Creation.
Bruno was arrested and tried for this and other heresies during the Inquisition. Refusing to recant, the rebellious priest was sentenced as an impenitent heretic on papal orders. In February 1600, he was taken to the Campo de’ Fiori, an open market in Rome, his tongue in a gag, and burned alive.
Today, there is a statue honoring Giordano Bruno in the Campo de’ Fiori. There are no statues of Dr. Krusen. In modern parlance, Bruno was an “Upstander,” Dr. Krusen a “Collaborator.”
Giordano Bruno would not serve a master who demanded that he deny the science that contradicted faith. He served the truth. Dr. Stockman refused to serve a master who placed profits over life and was ultimately branded “an enemy of the people.” Dr. Krusen chose instead to answer to his political masters.
This is the essential question now facing both American leadership and every individual. If we are to survive the current coronavirus, we need to carefully choose and serve a worthy master.
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