The Rear-View Mirror: The Spanish Flu (1918)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

No-one who consciously experienced the year 1918 is alive anymore, but if you ask the old folks around here, sooner or later you will encounter someone who knows about someone who died from the Spanish Flu. The might be puzzled by your question, they might be reluctant, but some of them will remember the dead. It might even be someone from their family, one or two generations back. You could even go all morbid and count the headstones in a graveyard and calculate if the year of death 1918 seems overpopulated. There is hardly any male dead from the First World War around here in Switzerland, so if 1918 is a peak year, you will know why.

These days of spring 2020 are either the best or the worst time to read Laura Spinney’s book Pale Rider. The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (2018). I tend to think the former, since it informs these days of lockdown and restrictions. I know that Corona isn’t nearly as bad as the Spanish Flu, but there is a lot that becomes clear from reading Spinney’s book.

There will be, for instance, a second wave. It’s inevitable. It will happen when everything, every pool, every stadium and every bar and disco will open again and let the people get as close as they want. It might happen during winter when immune systems are compromised; some of the Corona hotspots are famous skiing resorts. During the Spanish Flu, Spinney proves that the second wave was the most devastating, but let’s hope that this won’t happen with our own pandemic. Australia, for example, had almost no casualties during the first wave because of a rigorous lockdown, then opened up too early and had far too many dead during the second wave.

Spinney’s book also lists the measures that the different countries and cities employed to ward off the pandemic. Some are admirably clever, others are so naïve that you cannot believe that they really took place. There are spooky parallels between then and now. Spinney uses a chronological as well as geographical approach. That might not be to every reader’s liking, but it’s crucial to separate the flu victims from the war casualties. Whereas Pale Rider might read like a well-written historical account of an epidemic, these days it reads like an eerie horror story where closing the book won’t dispel the eerie feeling you have in the pit of your stomach.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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