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The Coronavirus Economy: President of the New York City Tenement Museum on what we can learn from previous pandemics

March 24, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend normal life, the fate of cultural centers and museums remains unknown. Like other institutions, the Tenement Museum in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood was forced to shut its doors on the evening of March 13 with no reopening date in sight.

Morris Vogel served as museum president from 2008 through 2017, before coming out of retirement in November 2019 to resume his post. In an earlier career, Vogel was a historian who taught the history of medicine and public health at Temple University for 30 years. Additionally, he served as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania.

Telling the immigrant story—and putting it into context for modern times—is the driving mission of the museum. “People understand the importance of our message,” says Vogel of the museum’s success. “We’re a core part of the American story. We helped change the American story from being a story of settlers and founding fathers and conquistadors and cowboys and generals and great white men, to being the story of ordinary people in their everyday lives. They found homes, they built families, they raised children, they earned livelihoods. They built communities, and in the process, they built this country. They didn’t assimilate into what America was. They made America what it is, what it has become, and indeed people are continuing to come in, are continuing to do precisely that.”

Morris Vogel, public health historian and president of Manhattan’s Tenement Museum.
Courtesy of Morris Vogel

Fortune spoke with Vogel for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his employment status and plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he was handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited.

Fortune: Explain what is meant by “public health.”

Vogel: Public health has a real race and class and gender overlay. It’s not as straightforward as “You’re sick, here’s treatment.” It’s about communities; how communities are perceived and how the communities act.

So being on the Lower East Side, some of the most revealing public health episodes—at least in American history—take place in lower Manhattan. There are things like the great cholera epidemics of the early and mid-19th century that are very much focused in Five Points and what we think of today as Chinatown and lower Manhattan. And then in 1892, the Jewish population of the Lower East Side was the great subject of quarantine when an epidemic threatened the United States.

There have always been deeper questions at play and how society responds to events like that. You tend to see it most in communities of people who are disadvantaged, seen as outsiders, subject to social controls. And in this epidemic, it hasn’t fully played into that trope yet, but what we’ve seen in Chinatown so far suggests that it’s just a matter of time.

Can you provide some historical context to what we’re seeing today with COVID-19?

Let’s look at 1793. Yellow fever, mosquito-borne. Philadelphia (the center of that epidemic) was the capital of the United States. This is not an original analysis on my part. What you get is some people who believe that everything about this country is hunky-dory. It’s great. Any disease must be coming from somewhere else. The answer is to quarantine, to keep foreigners out of the country. And these people who have these views? It’s the party in power, the Federalists. On the other side is that day’s Republicans, who actually have a fairly direct line to today’s Democratic party. What they see is wrong is inadequate investment in our own institutions and in our own people. The way they see it—because the idea of investing in people, human capital, isn’t yet a subject—is the streets are filthy. Housing is poor. We’ve got to clean up the miasma, the foul rot that permeates our atmosphere, which is the result of inadequate care for our communities. So that’s pretty clear-cut.

Of course, it turns out that both of these were to some degree right: Mosquitoes spread yellow fever by biting people who were already infected. And in 1793, Philadelphia held a growing population of infected persons fleeing Haiti, which was in the throes of radical revolution. The city’s mosquitoes were an ever-present fact of summer life; they bred (as they do now) in environments where there were swamps, where water stood in stagnant pools, and where properties weren’t cared for, often situations marked by poverty.

The key takeaway from the 1793 yellow fever epidemic for our moment is the degree to which political parties used it to build support. And there is a terrific risk today of blame replacing effective action, of political leaders heightening xenophobia by reassuring at least some Americans that some other group (even a group that lives among us as fellow citizens) is the cause of our problems.

A re-created apartment at New York City’s Tenement Museum.
Courtesy of Morris Vogel

What’s happening with the museum since it had to close its doors on March 13?

We’re a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit. We generate most of our operating costs through earned revenue, probably around 75%. The only other museums in New York in that category are the 9/11 Museum and the Intrepid. So in ordinary times, people say, “Wow, that’s a sign of such incredible strength.” But as soon as we zeroed out earned income, which we did on Friday afternoon [March 13], all of a sudden that 75% or so, it becomes—I don’t want to say insurmountable—it becomes an extremely difficult challenge.

We’ve got a great board. They help us generate the 20% to 25% of our operating expenses that come through philanthropy. They’re engaged, they’re supportive, but there’s a limit to what they can do. And now we’re trying to figure out how we go forward, given our dependence on earned revenue and given the challenges to philanthropy.

I mean, it’s no secret that philanthropy has gotten harder as the stock market is vulnerable. We also have no endowment. Over the years we’ve taken what money we’ve raised and put it into expanding programs.

In ordinary circumstances, we write a budget where we could absorb Hurricane Sandy or being closed for 9/11. We’ve absorbed closures, and we could take off a month and get through it. We’re rewriting the budget to get us through June 30 and with absolute uncertainty about what comes after that.

How has your working life changed since the museum’s closure?

I will be working full-time from home. I had retired about two and a half years ago, and so I was doing a lot of consulting from home and going into people’s offices on a need-to-travel basis. I’m used to sitting at a laptop, in a semi-quiet space, usually with classical music in the background. And before that, don’t forget, I spent more than 30 years as a college professor. And a college professor may go in and have classes two days a week, and the rest of the time you’re doing research and writing.

So, I’m used to being in a place with my own thoughts. These days are a lot more online; even if you’re sitting around and working, you have got these pings on the screen coming at you. You’re not as isolated.

Is there anything actionable that people can do based on what we’ve seen in the past?

Don’t overlook the best medical advice: Wash your hands. Avoid crowds. Have yourself tested. There’s the personal, and then there’s the public health. You do your best as a public citizen to not be in public. That’s what we can learn in a medical way.

We have to—it’s kind of like third grade—learn that we are in all of this together. That an individual that’s setting one group off against another is a formula for disaster, both in terms of the response to the epidemic and in terms of maintaining the social and political institutions on which we depend as individuals and collectively.

So that’s almost a metaphoric response. But when you’re trying to maintain a society, that becomes as important as washing your hands. You have to be able to anticipate the good intentions of the people around you. And if you’re not doing your best to make that possible, you can’t assume that they are.

In a bigger way, [the museum] tells the story of people who were brave in a place that had been unknown to them and circumstances that were unknown to them. They didn’t know what the future held, but they believed that it was worth taking the risk. We have no choice about taking the risk at this moment; it’s been dropped onto us, but we should try to be as brave in figuring out how we get through this as were the people whose stories we tell.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

How to get a refund on your Broadway tickets after the coronavirus shutdown
—The oil sector takes its next hit: The coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating the coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing the coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks the coronavirus can help business
—The coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.