Life-or-Death Pandemic Choices: 1918 and Today

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My paternal great-grandfather, Josef Franz Bílek, died on November 13, 1918, in the second wave of the Great Flu Pandemic. Born in the town of Nemeski Brod in Bohemia, now called Havlíčkův Brod in the Czech Republic, he worked in restaurants in Vienna, Hamburg, and New York City’s Belmont Hotel. Eventually, like many immigrants from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he moved to Chicago, where he became a chef in downtown hotels.

While working at The Congress Hotel, which still stands on Michigan Avenue, he met my great-grandmother, Frances, who was from Gliwice in what is now southern Poland. They married in 1911 and had a little girl, Mary Josephine, my grandmother, the following year. The family relocated to Milwaukee, where in 1917 he opened his own restaurant on 12th Street, his name in gold letters on the front window. Barely a year later, the flu took his life; he was not even 30 years old (family records conflict over his exact date of birth). My grandmother was just six years old. My great-grandmother re-married, to a man who dined often at the restaurant and ran a funeral home.

More than a hundred years later, with the world in the grip of another lethal virus, I think often of their story. I see restaurant owners today struggling with the same dilemma as Josef Bilek’s: keep your business open and survive financially but risk death in the grip of the virus – or close the business and lose everything. And I think of the funeral-home owner, whose business must have been booming as my great-grandfather’s struggled.

This family history is particularly salient as American families prepare for Thanksgiving amidst a second wave (or third, depending on how you count) of COVID-19. I have been thinking a lot about my great-grandfather’s impossible choice and what Americans might learn from it today.

The new late-autumn wave has already hit Europe hard, with new lockdowns looming. Here in Chicago, as infections rise again, we now have a curfew for non-essential businesses, a renewed ban on indoor restaurant dining, and a new emergency travel order further restricting travel to and from states with high levels of community transmission. My twitter feed is full of warnings from health care personnel seeing sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases. Toilet paper disappears quickly from grocery store and pharmacy shelves.

A recent poll by Ipsos found that seven of ten Americans are concerned there will be a spike in COVID-19 cases where they live during the holiday season. Despite that, an astonishingly high two in five Americans still planned to travel far enough away to require an overnight stay over the holidays. The poll also found just over half of Americans, 52 percent, planning to celebrate Thanksgiving only with immediate family. Just over a third, 35 percent, reported they were planning a smaller gathering than usual.

The Los Angeles Times has published a national COVID-19 real-time risk assessment tracker to help people to estimate the dangers of exposure in various locations and situations. In what appears to be a welcome sign of strong interest, some viewers had trouble accessing the site which reported too many users.

Assessing risk and weighing options involves two parts: first, evaluating the actual risk of catching the virus as well as we can with the information available; and second, understanding how that fits with our own personal risk tolerance. It’s a combination of reason and emotion.

Unfortunately, even accurate risk assessment does not always translate directly into behavior change, as I wrote in my recent strategy+business article on risk communications. Research over the summer by the Risk and Social Policy Working Group found that even when people saw risk as being high, they only followed public health recommendations if they thought that, say, mask wearing was likely to work.

As daily case numbers hit new high after new high and holiday gatherings pose a new threat of mass infections, I fear that some people may have given up at precisely the wrong time. I get it: we’re all tired of the pandemic and want our lives back. Many of us have developed new habits –wearing masks in public, more frequent hand washing, social distancing– that will help to keep us safe. Our health and the economy’s health depend on all of us keeping safe. But the very real pandemic fatigue that people are experiencing could offset at least some of this progress as some of us will get sloppy in our habits over the crucial next few months, and others who have rejected masks and public health safety measures all along will throw any remaining caution to the wind.

Like many of my friends, I’m getting ready for another long stretch of sheltering in place. I made a rare (masked, socially distanced) trip to downtown Chicago this week –only my fifth since February– for a long overdue haircut. The salon does a fantastic job with safety measures, but even so, my stylist openly worried that a new shutdown might be coming.

Two of my favorite restaurants nearby were closed, with for-lease signs in the windows. Chicago news is full of restaurants pushing back against the new restrictions. For many of them, a new lockdown will mean the death knell for their business and livelihood. A new $10 million hospitality industry grant from the city will disappear quickly. It seems like every day there’s a new announcement of a restaurant closing, and the ones that are still going have dramatically cut staff. Most have complied with public health guidelines to reduce the spread of the virus. They are asking for the right to continue indoor dining at low occupancies.

The plight of restaurants in Chicago and elsewhere made me think again of my great-grandfather and the no-win choice he had to make. Did he catch the flu at his restaurant from a customer who decided that public health safety guidelines did not apply to them? Did the stress of the blow to his business weaken his immune system and will to live? Would a better safety net have made it feasible for him to keep the restaurant doors closed until it was safer? I will never know, but I do know that restaurants today are asking similar questions, and that if we don’t come up with the right answers we know how the story will end.

This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

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COMING APRIL 2021: YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. Available for pre-order!

Michele Wucker
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Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at http://thegrayrhino.com/about/michelewucker

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