“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote poet George Santayana back in 1905. A decade later, one of the most devastating events in human history occurred, but was promptly forgotten in the collective memory, possibly leading to dire consequences today.
That event was not World War 1, but the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Its story has been unearthed in a short documentary, Pandemic Amnesia: Recovering the Memory of the 1918 Influenza Outbreak, which debuted last night on Decades and is now streaming free on Decades.com and YouTube. You can also watch it right here:
It’s estimated that at least 50 million worldwide died from the 1918 flu, more than the number of deaths in the concurrent war. That’s the proportionate equivalent of 400 million deaths in today’s world. One of Pandemic Amnesia’s talking heads – Guy Beiner of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev — calls it “the greatest devastation of the 20th Century and, in all likelihood, in the whole of human history.”
In the US, 675,000 died. Yet, President Woodrow Wilson never mentioned the pandemic in public. Dealing with sickness was left to local governments. Sound familiar?
The media too minimized the pandemic. We are shown a Washington Post headline: “Spanish Influenza More Deadly Than War.” The story is buried on the back page.
After all, as far as both the federal government and the media were concerned, there was a war to be won.
After an initial wave that started in the spring, the pandemic was seemingly subsiding. Local social distancing restrictions were relaxed. So, when the war was won on November 11, Americans took to the streets in masses to celebrate. As Pandemic Amnesia showed old newsreel footage, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands now out in the streets protesting: for a far different cause, no doubt, but just as passionately.
A second, deadlier flu wave then hit , followed by a third wave through the winter of 1919.
“People moved on, preferring to speak about the great memories of World War 1, whether it was defeat, whether it was victory,” says Beiner.
The Spanish Flu also didn’t get politicized, for either good or bad purposes, as did the 1980s’ HIV/AIDS epidemic. Beiner notes you won’t find any monuments or museums memorializing the dead — or honoring the courageous nurses, who get a whole section of their own in the documentary,
For me, the question becomes, will our current Covid-19 pandemic also be sent to the dustbin of history and our collective memory? Perhaps, judging by the media’s inability to focus on two big stories at the same time, we’re already there.
“If we don’t remember, then we’re not going to be able to prepare as well as we should, are we?” asks Laura Spinney, author of The Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, as Pandemic Amnesia concludes. “The result is that we’re always amazed when it happens, when we shouldn’t be. We should be calmly, rationally, doing the things that we have learned worked, and then realizing that there are things to do after the pandemic is over that will make us more prepared for the next one. That will mean that there is less suffering when it happens.”
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