Aberdeen mayor Travis Schaunaman says there “we no longer have a legitimate fear of overwhelming the [health care] system” with coronavirus patients and thus plans to push the city council to lift its anti-pandemic business restrictions.
Mayor Schaunaman has been putting business first since the beginning of the pandemic. He is thus likely oblivious to the historical lesson our ative merican neighbors could tell about what happens when we prioritize profit over public health:
In the late spring of 1837, the steamboat St. Peters was on its way from St. Louis to Fort Union in what is now northwestern North Dakota, carrying trade goods to distribute among American Fur Company trading forts on that 1,900-mile stretch of the Missouri River….
The St. Peters arrived in Fort Leavenworth (today’s Kansas) on April 29. A deckhand exhibited signs of smallpox at that time. Although the captain of the boat knew that smallpox was far more devastating to Native Americans than to white people, he neither removed the infected individual nor paused long enough for the contagion to run its course among his crew….
At 3 p.m. on Monday, June 19, the St. Peters arrived at Fort Clark on the south bank of the Missouri River at the base of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Attempts to keep the Native Americans of the area away from the boat failed. It was the annual arrival of industrial trade goods, which were now a vital part of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara economies, and eager individuals flocked to the dockside. As the trade goods were unloaded, there was much “Frolicking” at Fort Clark that night. It was just then that the second great smallpox epidemic came to the Mandan people. As historian Elizabeth Fenn has written, “We may never know the precise moment or mechanism that launched the virus into circulation. But one thing is clear: The stage was set for disaster.” The next day, Tuesday, June 20, 1837, the St. Peters continued its journey to Fort Union near today’s Williston, N.D.
It took a little over two weeks for the epidemic to overcome its incubation period and touch off the death rattle of the Mandan nation.
…Even if the smallpox epidemic was not deliberately introduced among the villager Indians as germ warfare, the responsibility lies with the white traders and transport crew, who chose profit over precaution after smallpox was discovered aboard the St. Peters as far down the Missouri River as northern Kansas. Just as we have learned to distinguish open from structural racism, so, too, we can differentiate deliberate genocide from appalling indifference that has genocidal ramifications. If the crew of the St. Peters had waited in Nebraska until all possibility of contagion was over, they might have been unable to ascend the Missouri River after the summer rise was over and thus lost a good deal of money, but they would have saved thousands of lives [Clay Jenkinson, “Smallpox and Indians: When Pandemic Warnings Go Unheeded,” Governing, 2020.04.22].
If Indians keeling over doesn’t ring your alarm bell, consider what the good white people of San Francisco did to themselves when they reopened too early during the 1918 influenza pandemic:
Back during the Spanish flu, San Fransisco’s failure to take swift action and the decision to ease restrictions after only a few weeks had huge ramifications. With 45,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths, the city was reported to have been one of, if not, the hardest-hit big city [Dartunorro Clark, “San Francisco Had the 1918 Flu Under Control. And Then It Lifted the Restrictions,” NBC News, 2020.04.25].
The majority of Americans recognize that reopening for business too soon is a really bad idea. Business leaders are showing more sense than the smallpox steamboaters of 1837 and hesitating to fling wide their doors and urge customers to crowd in. Unfortunately, it only takes a minority of narrow-minded profiteers to ruin everyone else’s precautions and bring more pandemic deaths.
We’re all eager to see coronavirus go away and return to more normal life. But we can’t will the pandemic away. Rush back to the bars and restaurants, and coronavirus will be worse than ever. Let’s reject Mayor Schaunaman’s rush to reopening and keep staying home.