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How the 1918 Pandemic Frayed Social Bonds – The Atlantic

Posted: April 1, 2020 at 4:44 am

By December 1918, the number of new cases tapered off, and American society began to return, gradually, to normal. (PUBLIC WILL GET ITS FIRST LOOK AT 1918 FOOTBALL, WHEN BAN LIFTS, TOMORROW, read a headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) However, the solitary aspect of the epidemic also affected the way that it was memorialized. As the disease stopped its spread, the publics attention quickly shifted to the end of World War I, undermining the cathartic rituals that societies need to get past collective traumas. In the decades after the sickness, the flu lodged in the back of peoples mind, remembered but not often discussed. The American writer John Dos Passos, who caught the disease on a troop ship, never mentioned the experience in any detail. It never got a lot of attention, but it was there, below the surface, Barry said.

More than 80 years later, the novelist Thomas Mullen wrote The Last Town on Earth, a fictional account of the 1918 flu. In an interview after the books publication, Mullen commented on a wall of silence surrounding survivors memories of the 1918 flu, which was quickly leading to the very erasure of those memories. The historian Alfred W. Crosby deemed it Americas forgotten pandemic.

In many places, the loneliness and suspicion caused by the flu continued to pervade American society in subtle ways. To some, it seemed that something had been permanently lost. People didnt seem as friendly as before, John Delano, a New Haven, Connecticut, resident, said in 1997. They didnt visit each other, bring food over, have parties all the time. The neighborhood changed. People changed. Everything changed.

Read: The coronavirus is no 1918 pandemic

However, Barry reassured me, this was not universally the case. In his research, he found that communities came together in places where local leadership spoke honestly about the danger of influenza. There was certainly plenty of fear nonetheless, you didnt seem to find the kind of disintegration that occurred in other places, he said. In cities where proactive public-health commissioners exhibited strong leadership, he argues in his book, people maintained faith in one another.

Seattle Commissioner of Health J. S. McBride, for instance, rapidly imposed firm public-health measures and even volunteered his services at an emergency hospital. In November 1918, he commended Seattle residents for their co-operation in observing the drastic, but necessary, orders which have been issued by us during the influenza epidemic. McBrides actions may have been what allowed Seattleites like Violet Harris to remember the epidemic as a somewhat boring time.

After six weeks of lockdown, public gathering spaces in Seattle finally reopened for business. School opens this week, Harris wrote in her diary. Thursday! Did you ever? As if they couldnt have waited till Monday!

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How the 1918 Pandemic Frayed Social Bonds - The Atlantic

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