Sunday, May 10, 2020

@AmExperiencePBS @RobertKenner-- the 1918 Pandemic.

The 1918 flu pandemic ("America's Forgotten Pandemic") has not so much passed out of our memory as it has instead been nearly consciously pushed from it. As the Economist has reported, for example, its own archives indicate that its editors "obeyed the wartime censors and avoided discussion of the disease in its leaders or editorials."  The pandemic was widely forgotten in public memory and ignored history books.
"Influenza 1918"

However, there was and is excellent scholarship on the issue. Perhaps the most brief and succinct entry into the subject is PBS' excellent 1998 episode of the American Experience.  While produced 22 years ago, nearly every element of current events is present in the 51-minute episode.  I caution parents, it is difficult for children.  The teacher's guide to the episode asks questions that in retrospect are heartbreaking -- "Looking back at the flu epidemic, what do students think should have been done to try to control the disease’s spread? Why do they think these actions were not taken?"

William Keepers Maxwell Jr.
image available at
Robert Kenner is the director of the episode, which utilizes a nice combination of historical film and survivor interviews to weave the story together.  Ken Chowder is the writer, and he particularly effectively employs the words of William Keepers Maxwell Jr. to illustrate and illuminate. Maxwell himself was a fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine for forty years (1936–1975), and the author six novels, including "They Came Like Swallows'' (1937) (his obit from the New York Times is here). Much of his work is about the effect of the pandemic in small-town Lincoln, Illinois, when he was ten. On the passing of his mother, Maxwell would say:

"It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it ... the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away ... the effect of my mother's death was that I realized, for the first time and forever, that we were not safe, we were not beyond harm. My father did what he could, he kept us together as a family but, from that time on there was a sadness, which had not existed before, a deep down sadness that never quite went away because, I knew people aren't safe and nobody's safe —terrible things could happen — to anybody."
While the pandemic itself was poorly documented, the crisis played a role in changing many minds on the role of government.  Hearkening back to the Economist, the newspaper notes that the paper's editorial line on government intervention changed after the pandemic. Previously, the editors had opposed efforts at education and public sewers. That changed rather abruptly.  Instead, they began advocating for more involvement to improve public health. That included calls for “decent conditions of work, fair pay and good housing.” Perhaps most interestingly, the paper began to promote “education” as a method that should be used to prevent the spread of disease in the future. A lot for thought in this, about how much we once knew, and perhaps had forgotten.