The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Eerie Parallels between 1958 and 2021 in Detroit

May 24, 2021

A Detroit Free Press article discusses the history of the polio epidemic in the U.S. and draws parallels to today’s COVID-19 pandemic. As they point out, of course the numbers of polio cases were much smaller than those for COVID. In the worst year for polio in the U.S., 1952, there were only about 52,000 cases and 3150 deaths, compared with over 30 million cases and 550,000 deaths in the U.S. in COVID’s first year.

Nevertheless, polio struck similar fears in the population due to it more often occurring in children and its ability to cause lifelong paralysis.

The trial for the first vaccine against polio was completed in 1955; and after the vaccine became available to the public, cases in the U.S. began to drop dramatically. Yet there were still places where large outbreaks occurred, particularly in Chicago in 1956 and in Detroit in 1958.

It turns out there were clear similarities between the two outbreaks. The two cities were important destinations during the Great Black Migration from the South. In 1956, health officials noticed that all of Chicago’s cases were among residents of the city’s low-income areas, with 157 out of 287 cases, more than half, striking black residents. The most heavily affected black neighborhoods had high numbers of people who were recent arrivals to Chicago. This finally led health officials to make clinics with free vaccines easier to get to.

Detroit’s experience two years later was similar, with the number of cases jumping from 11 in 1957 to 111 by late 1958. Researchers point out that it was not only hesitancy to get the vaccine that contributed to Detroit’s outbreak. It was also the consequence of poverty and overcrowding. The city was highly segregated. Many landlords refused to rent to black people. Consequently, the black population was restricted to living in segregated, overcrowded areas.

A final point the Free Press article makes is quite telling. The city finally increased its vaccination efforts by offering the polio vaccine for $1, and free to those who didn’t have a dollar. After that, Trinity Hospital, a black-owned hospital, vaccinated 2,000 people in the first week.

Recent data showed the city of Detroit’s COVID vaccination rate was at 31%, compared with 68% for the most highly vaccinated county in the state. Only around the time that information became public did the city start offering $50 incentives to people who brought others in to be vaccinated, and open up more vaccination clinics around the city.

With the lessons from Detroit’s 1958 polio outbreak, health officials should have made greater efforts to get people vaccinated sooner. This experience also shows, unfortunately, how little has changed since then.