Pandemic Mail

Reimagining the role of the USPS during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic by looking to the past.

This article is from Dollars & Sense: Real World Economics, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org


issue 348 cover

This article is from the
March/April 2021 issue.

Subscribe Now

at a 30% discount.

In 1813, Dr. James Smith stood before Congress with a plan to eradicate smallpox in the United States. His plan was simple: He was going to mail the smallpox vaccine to every American, free of charge (with some assembly required). He told Congress that he could further utilize postal infrastructure to curb the spread of the disease. He wanted to offer mail-in testing for under-resourced regions and to map requests for the vaccine as a way of tracking new smallpox cases throughout the country. He proposed to do all of this with only the “franking privilege” (the ability to send and receive mail for free), a shoestring budget, and no income of his own. Bold and pragmatic, the plan had legs; Congress thought it could work. The Vaccine Act of 1813 was signed into law and Dr. Smith fought smallpox by mail with the newly established National Vaccine Institute.

Nine years later, after Dr. Smith’s efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented incalculable suffering, his postal experiment met an abrupt and somewhat spectacular end when 12 residents of Tarboro, N.C. were mistakenly injected with live smallpox cultures instead of the vaccine. Over the next several months, 60 people contracted smallpox from this outbreak and 10 died. This mistake undercut public trust in the National Vaccine Institute under Dr. Smith’s guidance. (Dr. Smith held that this mistake was actually a calculated move by a rival who sought to undermine the National Vaccine Institute, and there is good evidence that Smith was right about this conspiracy.) Congress withdrew the postal franking privilege from Smith’s operation, snuffing out what had been the most progressive and democratic public health initiative of the 19th century.

Binding the Nation Together

The Post Office Act of 1792 marked a new epoch in mail delivery in the United States. The new U.S. system was designed to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas among the populace. The 1792 postal act set in motion what postal historian Richard R. John describes as an incremental communications revolution in which “ordinary Americans now found it possible for the first time to actively participate in a truly open-ended national discussion on the leading events of the day.” By facilitating the routine transmission of mail throughout the length and breadth of the United States, the postal system became a powerful agent of democracy. To this day, the USPS is positioned as a democratically accessible public service, enshrined in its official code:

The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people.

To enact this democratic vision, early 19th century postal officials built the infrastructure from the ground up. Between 1792 and 1865 alone the postal map evolved from a sparse constellation of drop-points along the Eastern seaboard to an intricate web of private and affordable communication that included every city, town, and village in the country. In 1792, there were 75 post offices in the country, and by 1865 there were 28,882.

The postal system did not simply deliver letters, however. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the postal system transmitted newspapers, books, and magazines; employed more civilians than any other institution; and deployed new technologies to ensure the speedy and safe delivery of the mail. In today’s terms, the postal system was the nation’s first social network and informational infrastructure. The establishment of the federal postal system reoriented relationships both real and imagined between friends and strangers, communities, and regions.

For many early Americans, the development and expansion of the postal system ushered in a new sense of interconnectedness. Postal patrons spoke of the mail’s ability to alter their experience of time and space (language usually reserved for the advent of a new technology like the railroad and post-electronic media). During the 19th century Americans praised the postal system’s ability to collapse distance: “why this is a machinery, which, in a sense, extends your presence over the whole country, even to the edge of the wilderness, where the last traces of government and of civilized life disappear.” In an 1831 article on the importance of letter writing, another postal patron proclaimed, “time and distance are annihilated” and that upon the receipt of a friendly letter “we are there.” By facilitating the speedy passage of letters, newspapers, and other media, the postal system challenged early Americans to adapt their understanding of the world and their place in it.

This much-abbreviated history of the National Vaccine Institute and its reliance on the United States Post Office Department offers an entry point into considering the role of the postal service during our own 21st century Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the postal service fulfills a humble role in U.S. society, as it is one of many infrastructures that work to keep people informed and connected. In the early 19th century, however, the postal service stood alone at the cutting edge of high-speed long-distance communication. Horses, riders, and the movement of mail connected the entire nation and performed so efficiently that Dr. Smith believed that the strategic use of this system could outpace the spread of a contagious and deadly disease. Though we can’t recycle Dr. Smith’s method of vaccine distribution (for one, the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius), we can learn two crucial lessons from his experience with the postal service in the 19th century. First, that the United States Postal Service (USPS) is a fundamental public service that can adapt to serve the populace in multitudinous ways. And second, that the expansive infrastructure of the USPS can be harnessed to serve the public in the midst of public health emergencies. While most aspects of modern communication no longer take place by mail and instead rely on digital infrastructures, there are certain decidedly material needs that cannot be addressed by the digital realm. In these cases, policymakers should use the expansive publicly-oriented infrastructure of the post office creatively and for the good of the populace—as they have in the past. Postal operations during past pandemics are instructive in this way because testing, treatment, and inoculation of infectious diseases rely upon the transmission of materials on a national scale. The USPS is uniquely situated to do this work. By turning to postal operations in past pandemics, we can begin to reimagine the role of the USPS in modern life during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meeting the Needs of the Public—in Sickness and in Health

During other 19th and 20th century epidemics, postal officials adapted protocols and policies to best suit the public good. For example, during the Spanish flu pandemic at the beginning of the 20th century (which eventually led to the deaths of 675,000 people in the United States), postal workers delivered educational materials to individuals on their routes. Receiving this information from a postal worker—someone who was both a local citizen and a representative of the federal government—helped to build the credibility of public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing to slow the spread of the disease. Just a few years later, during a diphtheria epidemic, which peaked in 1921 with 206,000 cases in the United States, the postal system revised its fee structures to facilitate speedy correspondence about the disease, its testing, and treatment. Congress allowed medical officials to ship samples for testing in new liquid mailing cases that were designed especially for medical research. Though the federal government did little to dispatch postal resources to address the 1950s polio epidemic on an institutional level, some patients received medication by airmail (as dramatized by Cary Grant in the film Only Angels Have Wings). Several decades later, when the federal government belatedly addressed the AIDS crisis in 1988, they issued a pamphlet to every person in the country by mail. The pamphlet clarified factual information about HIV/AIDS transmission and encouraged preventative measures like condom use. Still today, many people living with HIV/AIDS rely on mail-order pharmacies to get their life-saving prescriptions on time.

Mail Delivery in the Time of Covid-19

As the spread of Covid-19 picked up speed in the spring of 2020, the USPS sought to live up to precedents like these by developing a plan to use the mail for the public good. In April, the USPS drafted a memo announcing a plan to “distribute 650 million reusable cotton face coverings...to every residential delivery point in America.” The memo quotes former Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan, who emphasizes how past postal precedent informed their decision to send masks to everyone:

Our organization is uniquely suited to undertake this historic mission of delivering face coverings to every American household in the fight against the COVID-19 virus. Our employees have been providing essential service to the American people throughout this crisis delivering vital goods and services and serving as a lifeline for millions of people as this pandemic has unfolded. Today, we stand ready to deliver, as we have for 240 years, [and] help our country combat the pandemic.

This measure would have undoubtedly slowed transmission rates and conveyed the seriousness of Covid-19 in the crucial early days of the pandemic. People would have had universal access to reusable masks, and, moreover, they also would have understood that, as a nation, it was time to take action for the broader social good. The plan, supported by the Department of Health and Human Services, was ultimately stamped out by the Trump administration’s concern that these packets of personal protective equipment would needlessly alarm the public.

While the USPS was thwarted in its attempt to enact this very basic public health measure, other postal systems across the globe have found new ways to operate for the public good during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Universal Postal Union (a long-standing agency of the United Nations) has been keeping track of the growing number of creative and cooperative postal policies instituted over the past year. The Bangladesh Postal Office, for example, “is delivering personal protection equipment, coronavirus testing kits, and awareness leaflets to all 64 districts free of charge.” Postal systems in Colombia, Bolivia, and Switzerland now offer food delivery by mail for families in need. The postal system in the Czech Republic is training postal workers “to recognize signs of domestic violence and how to help potential victims...in response to reports that show an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic.” The Irish postal system is looking out for children’s mental health during the pandemic by distributing books filled with “drawing, writing, and mindfulness exercises from leading Irish children’s authors and illustrators.” Irish postal workers are now also looking out for elderly and vulnerable populations with their new “checking-in” service in which postal workers “regularly check on older and vulnerable people and to relay any requests for provisions or medicines.” These countries have found ways to utilize national communications infrastructures to meet the social and health-related challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. These examples showcase the creative thinking and adaptability that can help us meet the special demands of a pandemic.

Bad Policy, Good Intentions

The postal system’s longstanding institutional policy of serving the public during health crises predates germ theory and modern medicine. Which is to say, some early postal policies might not have been rooted in good science, but they were nevertheless intended to serve the good of the public. During a yellow fever outbreak at the end of the 19th century, for example, some post offices made use of “perforation paddles” to poke holes in envelopes before fumigating them with sulfur. This was a longstanding policy for mail on certain Southern routes (as yellow fever outbreaks were largely located in warmer Southern climes). Some offices also used tar-lined mailbags to contain the spread of the disease. Though these practices did little to curb yellow fever, which is spread by mosquitos, postal officials thought they did—and designed and implemented these strategies for the well-being of postal workers and the public. Even though some strategies didn’t work, the U.S. postal system has consistently adapted its protocols and policies to keep the public connected, well-informed, and safe.

Undue Burdens

Despite the heroic and sustained efforts of postal workers, the USPS has struggled to meet the demands of the pandemic. This is largely because policymakers do not value the USPS as a public service and have lost sight of its long history of adaptability and innovation. Instead, over the past several decades, Congress has passed policies to reduce postal operations and keep the budget tight—transforming the USPS from an innovative government institution to one that is overburdened and underfunded. One of the most substantial encumbrances on postal operations today is tied to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, which requires the USPS to generate enough revenue to cover operating costs and prefund its retirees’ health benefits up to the year 2056. This unreasonable obligation—which no other entity, private or public, has to make—consistently misrepresents postal operating costs. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2019, “if the costs of this retiree health care mandate were removed from USPS financial statements, the Post Office would have reported operating profits in each of the last six years.” Under these constraints, the USPS has little room to innovate and rise to the occasion as other countries are—and as the U.S. postal system did throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. These policies are part of a broader Republican-aligned project of privatizing the postal service. In fact, Trump’s 2018 federal budget proposal included a plan to privatize the mail. The appointment of Louis DeJoy to the Postmaster General position in May 2020 put the USPS at further risk of privatization—as DeJoy instituted “cost-cutting measures” that have resulted in mail delays and understaffed post offices. The American Postal Workers Union (APWU) has long fought such misguided federal oversight of the USPS. After the Trump administration failed to fully provide for the USPS in the CARES act, the APWU condemned the administration for “trying to leverage the crisis to sacrifice our public Postal Service at the altar of private profit.”

Though these policies have saddled the postal system with undue burdens for decades, Trump’s recent efforts to undermine the USPS during a pandemic and an election year had an unexpected silver lining. Mail delays during this time of need have drawn widespread attention to the importance of the USPS in American life. Even with delayed service, many Americans still rely on the postal service to stay connected. Instead of travelling for the holidays, people opted to mail gifts to distant loved ones. The volume of parcel delivery during the 2020 holiday season was up 30–40% more than it was last year, according to postal officials. Even with long lines and delays, 91% of respondents to a Pew Research Center survey last March had a favorable view of the postal service. This reputation is well-earned. The USPS is the only distribution network that serves the entire populace of the United States, urban and rural alike. The USPS maintains a “universal service obligation” that requires routine mail delivery to every zip code in the country at an affordable price. In remote rural areas, this is not at all profitable for the USPS (as companies like Amazon, UPS, and FedEx well know). In fact, private providers like UPS and FedEx hand many of their packages over to the USPS for the “last mile” of service, particularly in lower density areas. Without the USPS and its universal service obligation, many Americans would simply be cut off from modern commerce because their inclusion is not profitable. The USPS as a public service is designed to treat each person equally regardless of where they live or how much they earn. In this way, the USPS ensures that we maintain an infrastructure that allows us to live up to our own democratic principles in which every person matters.

Advocating for the Public Good

The National Vaccine Institute stands as a reminder of the value of public participation in articulating the public good to Congress. The Vaccine Act of 1813 passed into law, in part, because Dr. Smith’s plan held muster—and because he offered to do the work for free. It also materialized because it was widely supported by people throughout the country—who wrote to Congress to share their support. The American State Papers enshrine petitions from “Sundry inhabitants of Virginia” who sent a petition to Congress, “praying that the vaccine virus may be transported by mail free of postage.” Another group of Pennsylvanians did the same. A representative also read a letter from “a number of practicing physicians” who requested that “vaccine matter be transmitted by mail free of postage.” These records stand as a reminder that public participation in policymaking works. Who better to articulate the public good than the public?

USPS as the Infrastructure of Democracy

When the postal system works as it should—to stabilize and meet the mundane needs of the populace—most of us take little notice. Infrastructure works to normalize behavior, to the point that certain things become relatively invisible and unnoticed—like the fact that a representative of the U.S. government stops by our homes nearly every single day of the year. When infrastructure breaks, however, people take notice. The disruption of normal life—lags, delays, and mis-deliveries—reminds us how infrastructures like the postal system depend on government support and funding, human ingenuity, and public participation to work.

Epidemics remind us that we are bound together by biology—and that the illness and suffering of one can affect us all. The post office also binds us together. Underfunded and overburdened as it is, the USPS is still something of a miracle. For pocket change, anyone can send a letter to Alaska or Kansas or New York City in a matter of days. Distance does not factor in to the cost of letter postage—as it certainly would if the system was privatized. It is the only institution that goes to every county in the country—and it offers important public services in each. It is the second largest employer in the country and its employees are incredibly diverse. When we look at the long institutional history of the American mail system, we learn that, when needed, the USPS can turn its capacities toward public services that do not generate revenue. The pandemic stands as an opportunity to see what of the past is worth bringing into the future. Funding and supporting the USPS as an adaptable, dynamic public service is an American tradition that works for everyone.

is an assistant professor of English at Boston College.

Today, the postal service is in crisis and it is in our best interest to save it. Postal advocacy groups urge people to call their senators to support relief funding and to overturn the 75-year retiree health benefit mandate. The APWU recommends that the public reach out to the Biden administration and encourage them to fill the vacancies of the Postal Board of Governors with “diverse and community-based members,” especially those who support innovative postal policies like postal banking and expanded social services. To learn more, visit apwu.org.

American Postal Workers Union website (apwu.org); David M. Henkin, The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-century America, (University of Chicago, 2006); Sarah Anderson, Scott Klinger, and Brian Wakamo, “How Congress Manufactured a Postal Crisis—And How to Fix it,” Institute for Policy Studies, February 2020 (ips-dc.org); Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Harvard University Press, 1995); Kentucky State Board of Health, Bulletin of the State Board of Health of Kentucky, Volumes 4-6, April 12, 1915; S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler, Smallpox: A History, (MacFarland & Company, 2013); Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Public Health Service, Understanding AIDS (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988); Save the Post Office (upu.int/en/Universal-Postal-Union; apwu.org/savepostoffice); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 20, 2019 (cdc.gov); Dana Robinson and Ann Battenfield, “The Worst Outbreaks in U.S. History,” Healthline, March 24, 2020 (healthline.com).

Did you find this article useful? Please consider supporting our work by donating or subscribing.

end of article