Why did the memories of this plague pass so vividly from memory? In his 1976 book, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The 1918 FluAlfred W. Crosby theorizes that it was because the flu epidemic straddled a world war. Flu obituaries, which filled the pages, blurred with Europe’s equally long casualty lists, creating a massive and undifferentiated list of the dead. In addition, the disease spread rapidly in the population and disappeared before its complete danger could be realized. “No one has ever taken years to die from the flu,” Crosby writes. Polio or smallpox, which killed and left visible marks on its survivors to remind people of its power, sparked greater fear. “No one has ever taken years to die of the flu,” writes Crosby, and most of the sick survived. Finally, few, if any, famous people have died from the flu, so the press has not commemorated his many martyrs in large print.
Teenage diaries downplayed contagion, as John M. Barry reports in his book, The great flu, which complicates any attempt at a complete analogy of the two outbreaks. When the flu finally passed, it took away many memories associated with it, leaving only a cultural void. Only two influenza monuments appear to have been erected, and they were stragglers: a Barre granite bench in Vermont in 2018 and a New Zealand plaque in 2019. Novelists such as Wallace Stegner, Willa Cather, Thomas Wolfe , John O’Hara, Mary McCarthy and William Maxwell broached the subject in their fiction, but F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway avoided disaster. The only leading writer to witness and discuss the 1918 influenza pandemic at length was Katherine Anne Porter, but only in an autobiographical short story published in 1939. Famous historians have also covered the subject extensively in their academic textbooks. , adds Crosby, and the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature devoted more column inches to baseball than to the flu in his index finger 1919-1921. Tellingly, Dr William Carlos Williams, who made 60 medical calls a day as the pandemic raged, never exploited the virus for his poetry.
The AIDS crisis received more concentrated attention from Broadway (The normal heart; Angels in America) and Hollywood (Philadelphia cream) than the 1918 influenza pandemic did in its day. Given the socio-racial inequalities of this pandemic and the mismanagement of it by Donald Trump, the potential for a work of art on the theme of Covid-19 exists, but will its target be the pandemic or Trump? Timeless works of fiction demand an identifiable villain, and nature’s acts like a killer virus don’t fill that bill.
The cultural vogue to commemorate and commemorate has grown since 1918, with monuments popping up everywhere to mark important events, so fleeting Covid-19 monuments may be on the horizon. During inauguration week, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris observed moments of silence alongside their spouses in the Lincoln Memorial’s reflection pool, where 400 lanterns temporarily marked the deaths of 400,000 people from the virus. The New York Times has already worshiped the dead Covid-19 with two tributes, the first being a comprehensive May 2020 list of the first 100,000 Americans to die from the virus, which took up the entire page one before jumping inside, and the second, a graphic published Sunday which represented each of the first 500,000 to die with a black dot.
But these acts of commemoration are unlikely to lead to permanent monuments where we come together to reflect. By convention, we erect most of our monuments to salute the heroic spirit, or to recognize the acts of sacrifice of soldiers, police officers and static firefighters or to illustrate national ideals, such as the Statue of Liberty or the Gateway Arch. . Since the 9/11 attacks in particular, first responders have rightly acquired a heroic stature they never had before, so we can expect medical responders – from doctors to janitors – who have died of Covid-19 can be commemorated in granite during this decade. But the other 500,000? Even though they heroically fought for their lives on their deathbed, it is unlikely that we will formally institutionalize the memory of their deaths as this is not our path. We quickly forgot about the influenza pandemic of 1918, only reminding ourselves more palpably when similar viral threats surfaced in 1957, 1976, and 2003, but then we put the dead out of mind as crises were passing. Our greed for building sanctuaries in honor of those who have died of disease is illustrated by our response to the AIDS disaster. The AIDS quilt marked the death of this epidemic in the late 1980s, spanning 20 cities. (As of last year, the quilt had grown to 1.2 million square feet and is stored in a warehouse in Oakland, Calif.) Yet no permanent memorials to the deaths of 700,000 Americans (and more) because of this virus does exist, although an initiative to build such a place has taken root in southern California.
“Everyone knows that plagues have a way of breeding in the world, but somehow we find it hard to believe in which ones fall on our heads under blue skies,” writes Albert Camus in Plague. “There have been as many plagues as there have been wars in history, but plagues and wars always take people by surprise.” Would building a Covid-19 war memorial increase our vigilance and keep our minds prepared for the challenge posed by the next viral wave? Probably no more than the 9/11 memorial and museum did to protect us from another attack. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
An appropriate gesture would be to commission larger-than-life statues of a man and woman in lab coats to honor the scientists who, working around the world, created in less than a year half a dozen licensed vaccines that will bring the virus to its knees. . As formidable as any hero who stormed a beach or rescued a drowning child, the vaccine makers deserve this tribute. By honoring them and preserving their hopeful heroism, perhaps we can remember this epidemic in a way that will help prevent or block the next.
I haven’t received my jab yet. Send vaccines (two doses, please) to [email protected]. My email alerts went anti-vaxx before it was all the rage. My Twitter the diet regrets not having received the shingles vaccine. My The RSS feed insists that its vaccines be psychoactive.