A couple of markers

Jonathan Freedland wonders why did the 1918 Flu disappear from the collective memory so swiftly?

Look around almost any British town or village and you will see a war memorial, usually first built to honour the fallen of 1914 to 1918. But scour this country and the rest of the world, and you will struggle to find more than a couple of markers for the event that, globally and at the time of the war’s end, took many more lives. The first world war killed some 17 million people, but the “Spanish” flu that struck in 1918 infected one in three people on the planet – a total of 500 million – leaving between 50 million and 100 million dead. The number of dead was so much greater and yet, as the leading historian of that pandemic, Laura Spinney, writes, “there is no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow or Washington DC” for any of them. The great writers of the age, the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, all but ignored the plague that had descended.

Think of all the war movies there are and then about the comparatively small number of flu movies. By comparatively small I mean zero.

Why is that? An explanation begins in the novelist Graham Swift’s conception of man as “the storytelling animal”. Wars offer a compelling, linear story. There are causes and consequences, battles, surrenders and treaties, all taking place in a defined space and time. Pandemics are not like that. They sprawl the entire globe. And the facts can take decades to emerge. For many years, the 1918-20 pandemic was thought to have cost 20 million lives. Only relatively recently has the truer, more deadly picture emerged.

Crucially, a pandemic lacks the essential ingredients of a story: clear heroes and villains with intent and motive. The Covid enemy is, despite our best efforts to anthropomorphise it, an invisible and faceless virus.

That’s only one kind of story though. Clear villains aren’t an essential ingredient of all stories. (There’s also the fact that bumbling or outright criminally negligent people at the top could step right up for those villain roles.) You’d think heroic nurses and doctors would make plenty of good story.

We are practised in the collective memory of war, but with pandemics we do something different. “We remember them individually, not collectively,” says Spinney. “Not as a historical disaster, but as millions of discrete, private tragedies.”

That’s what the precedent of 1918 suggests we’ll do this time, and yet I can’t help but hope that’s wrong. When this is over, I hope we take each other’s hands and remember this strange, dark period together – even if we spent so much of it apart, so much of it alone.

I think we’ll remember it, but whether we’ll pass the memory on or not – I have my doubts.

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