Dr. Karina Zeidler: Sewer Socialists of the 1900s knew how to make healthy cities (we can learn a lot from them)

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      By Dr. Karina Zeidler

      We wanted our workers to have pure air; we wanted them to have sunshine; we wanted planned homes; we wanted living wages; we wanted recreation for young and old; we wanted vocational education; we wanted a chance for every human being to be strong and live a life of happiness.

      — Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor.

      In 1910, Emil Seidel became the first socialist to win a mayoral race in a major U.S. city, and the first of three Socialist mayors to serve the City of Milwaukee.

      This began what was later referred to as “The Milwaukee Experiment”, a now little-known, but shockingly impressive program of civic reform that made Milwaukee the healthiest city in America. Over a period of just 10 years, the Socialists doubled the life expectancy of people living in Milwaukee.

      They called themselves “Sewer Socialists”. 

      Before the Sewer Socialists, cholera was simply a part of life in North American cities, because most people were forced to drink water that was contaminated—let’s not mince words—by human shit. Wealthy interests tried to convince the public that getting cholera from unsafe water was something people just had to live with.

      But the public in Milwaukee was not fooled. They elected Socialist leaders who promised to clean the water, by building public sewage and water treatment systems. And those leaders delivered.

      The term “Sewer Socialist” began as an insult, hurled at midwestern socialists by more Utopian, eastern seaboard socialists, because people like mayors Seidel, Daniel Hoane and Frank Zeidler (no relation to the author) thought that the best way to change the world and win the support of the people was to deliver transparent, effective government that made everybody’s lives better. Milwaukee socialists adopted the term as a point of pride.

      The Sewer Socialists of Milwaukee were responsible for bringing in an almost unbelievable series of “firsts” to North American settler cities: the first modern public health system, which cut infant mortality in half; the first public vaccination campaigns; the first public baths; the first eight-hour day; the first workmen’s compensation; the first public housing; the first racially integrated public housing; and even the very first Social Security program in North America.

      And yes, they introduced the first public sewer and water systems, too. 

      It’s a historical fact: The Sewer Socialists virtually eliminated cholera, plus a host of other “endemic” diseases, simply by cleaning the water, just as we need to clean the air of pathogens now, with upgraded ventilation, and restoring the universal mask mandate. By the way: thanks to their robust public health system, Milwaukee had one of the lowest excess death figures of any American city in the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. 

      Given the pretended helplessness of civic governments today, it’s both inspiring and infuriating to contemplate all the things Sewer Socialists achieved.

      The Sewer Socialists didn’t just do a little trimming around the edges of the misery of American urban life. Instead, they quickly eliminated human misery, wholesale. They made everyone’s lives measurably better. 

      And yet today, elected officials in Vancouver seem to think that they deserve a pat on the back, despite the rising homelessness, poisoned drug deaths, mass infection, pollution, racism, deadly police violence, lack of access for people with disabilities, and real estate corruption—just some of the problems that define the true, tragic state of Vancouver in 2022.

      COVID-19 and other communicable diseases are being allowed to rip through the city, thanks to the dereliction of duty of B.C.’s Public Health Office, and civic government’s refusal to pick up the slack. People in Vancouver have a right to breathe clean, safe air. But they’re not getting it. 

      So far, all levels of government have simply failed to tax the rich enough to pay for delivering safe air, and we are paying the price in needless illness, injury, and death. Our governments have made tens of thousands of people, including children, very sick, and many thousands have died.

      Despite some spurious claims, the government has not put engineers and aerosol specialists to work, making sure all of Vancouver’s school rooms have air that’s safe from COVID and other communicable diseases. This is despite the federal government’s announcement of $11.9 million to  “ensure clean air” in classrooms in B.C. 

      That’s why our policy document at votesocialist.ca includes promises to: 

      Mandate universal masking and provide FREE high quality masks, such as KN95 or better, to control COVID-19 at the source;

      Improve ventilation to align with recently updated American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Epidemic Task Force guidance to keep classroom air flowing so it is as clean, fresh and virus-free as possible, providing for better cognitive function and prevention of other airborne diseases; Monitor air quality with tools such as CO2 monitors, based on the advice of qualified professionals as per regulatory requirements;

      Install HEPA filtration or Corsi-Rosenthal boxes in every classroom as an added layer to catch harmful particles within classroom air, from viral particles to wildfire smoke;

      Introduce Test, Trace, and Isolate policies, that are based on airborne spread and include ‘test to exit’ strategies for those infected, to reduce the introduction of COVID-19 into schools in the first place;

      Provide Classroom COVID-19 notifications to allow parents/ guardians to make fully informed risk assessments for their children and families;

      Provide equitable remote options for children who are at high risk from communicable diseases such as COVID-19, or those who live with at-risk family members, to allow them to access education, a human right, without risking their health (which is also a human right);

      Ensure adequate resources to support online learning for students who are isolating;

      Mandate smaller class sizes to allow distancing to reduce the risk of close range aerosol transmission;

      Provide support for parents/ guardians by addressing their concerns and making it easier for them to get their children vaccinated and boosted, to lower the risk of transmission, infection, and long-term illness.

      Provide shaded, weather-protected outdoor eating and gathering areas for students and staff.

      We have to stop accepting the notion that local government can’t deliver things people need, and start remembering that local government can, and has delivered things that were once dismissed as impossibly radical. The Milwaukee Sewer Socialists cleaned their city’s water. Now we need to clean our city’s air.

      For our full school board policies please visit the VOTE Socialist website.

      Dr. Karina Zeidler is a family physician, cofounder of Protect Our Province B.C., and the VOTE Socialist candidate for the Vancouver school board.