Dreadful disease, dreadful dilemma: quarantine the city or risk losing Bethlehem Steel to the war effort

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For perspective on our current coronavirus situation, we are following the entrance of the 1918 Spanish Influenza, that paragon of pandemics, into the minds and bodies of Lehigh Valley residents who got their news through the Morning Call (the files of the Bethlehem Globe are closed to us at the moment).

Our president has called himself, metaphorically, a war-president in the fight against the coronavirus.

In 1918, there was a real war going on when the Spanish Flu arrived.

A war in which Bethlehem Steel, Bethlehem Steel workers, and Bethlehem in general played an essential role.

Gadfly bets you hadn’t considered how fighting a foe in Europe complicates fighting a flu in the ether.

But doesn’t the following situation sound familiar?

Recognition that “social distancing” combats the disease (plus recognition that we’re a crucial link in the military supply chain) but reluctance to “go the distance” because of entertainment and business interests.

Another disease sometimes seems to come in tandem with the pandemics: political paralysis.

The government official recommends the Lehigh Valley tri-cities enter in to an “absolute quarantine . . . in order to guard against the danger of a Spanish influenza epidemic which the government fears would cripple the industrial centres hereabouts that are turning out war products.”

The government official recommends “the prohibition of all public gatherings in the city, the closing of all schools, theatres, saloons, pool rooms, soda fountains and churches for an indefinite period.”

Shut-down. Shelter-in-place.

The Allentown mayor drags feet. Such “drastic and radical” action will interfere with fund raising for the war (red herring), there’s already the constructive effort of an anti-flu placard, sign, and card campaign (we’re doing enough to fight the disease now), and he opts to wait to see what others will do (punts).

The government official sees the real reason: “When General Pershing cables for guns and ammunition we cannot tell him that we cannot send the supplies because we didn’t quarantine a city for fear it would be an inconvenience to the merchants and saloonmen.”

The government official turns the screws, or tries to: “If production at the Bethlehem Steel plant is impeded because of the epidemic, we will be culpable. . . . This is a radical act but these are radical times.”

Decision, decisions — that’s why our local officials make the big money! (Just kidding, of course.)

God grant our elected officials the courage to act with wisdom and speed in radical times.

(Wouldn’t you love to see “man-in-the-street” interviews?)

Flu 23

Flu 32
Flu 33
Flu 34

Morning Call, October 2, 1918

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