Guest post: A pattern of forgetting

Originally a comment by Arnaud on A couple of markers.

In 1957/1958, a flu pandemic (the Hong Kong flu) caused up to 3 million deaths worldwide, 100,000 in France alone. It circled the world in less than six months and caused untold misery. Like COVID19, most of the death occurred among older people (over 65) but, at a time when life expectancy was much lower than it is now, that didn’t shock that much, maybe. How to explain that the devastation was so quickly forgotten?

So quickly forgotten that when what was pretty much the same virus came back in 1968, the same mistakes were made, the same complacency prevailed and the same results were seen: a worldwide death toll of between 1 and 4 million.

Then, THAT pandemic was in its turn swiftly forgotten. I myself was born in 1970 and I must admit, I’d never heard of it until a couple of months ago. That’s two pandemics that the people experienced and didn’t care to remember.

So there is, definitely, a pattern of forgetting, of erasement of these events from our collective memories. It doesn’t have to be so, the memory can be kept alive: one of the reasons a lot of Asian countries did much better in fighting COVID was their own memories of SARS nearly 20 years but the effects can be perverse. While governments and people who lived through it in China, Hong Kong, Viet Nam remembered it vividly, the rest of the world, who never was affected much thanks to stringent security measures, dismissed it too easily as scaremongering. (The same thing happened with the 2K bug!)

I don’t know why this happens to be honest, this forgetting. You could say there is a certain fatalism, a tendency to accept epidemics as a fact of life but surely that cannot be entirely the case, how can you accept as a fact of life something you refuse to remember? Maybe because, as OB hints, there are no great stories, no great deeds and derring-dos or at least none that the entertainment industry care to commemorate?

As an aside, I remember the 1918 flu epidemic (not personally of course!) and so do a lot of people here in Europe. I cannot speak about the US but in my opinion this one left an imprint. Mind you, it was particularly awful.

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