Why did memories of this plague come so vividly? In his 1976 book, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The 1918 InfluenzaAlfred W. Crosby suspects that the flu outbreak overlapped with a world war. Obituaries for the flu that filled the pages blurred with the equally long lists of victims from Europe, forming a massive, undifferentiated list of the dead. Also, the disease moved quickly through the population and disappeared before its full danger could be recognized. Polio, or smallpox, which killed its survivors and left visible marks to remind people of their power, instilled greater fear. “It took no one years to die of the flu,” writes Crosby, and most survived. After all, few, if any famous people died of the flu, so the press did not recall their many martyrs in large print.
The teenage newspapers downplayed the contagion, as John M. Barry reports in his book, The great influenzaThis complicates any attempt to fully analogize the two outbreaks. When the flu finally passed, it took away many of the memories associated with it, leaving only a cultural void. Just two monuments the flu seem to have been erected and they were late arrivals: a barre, Vt., granite bench in 2018 and a New Zealand plaque Writers such as Wallace Stegner, Willa Cather, Thomas Wolfe, John O’Hara, Mary McCarthy and William Maxwell touched on the subject in their fiction, but F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway steered far from disaster. The only significant writer who witnessed the 1918 influenza pandemic and dealt extensively with it was Katherine Anne Porter, albeit only in an autobiographical edition Novella published in 1939. Famous historians have largely omitted the subject in their textbooks too, adds Crosby, and the Reader’s guide to periodical literature devoted more inches to baseball than the flu in its 1919-1921 index. Significantly, Dr. William Carlos Williams, who made 60 medical calls a day during the pandemic, never exploited the virus for his poetry.
The AIDS crisis received more attention from Broadway (The normal heart;; Angels in america) and Hollywood (Philadelphia) than the 1918 influenza pandemic in its time. Given the socio-racial inequalities of this pandemic and Donald Trump’s mismanagement, there is potential for a Covid-19 themed work of art, but will the target be the pandemic or Trump? Timeless novels require an identifiable villain, and natural acts like a killer virus don’t fill that bill.
Cultural fashion for commemoration and commemoration has expanded since 1918. Monuments have sprung up everywhere to mark important events, so there may be pop-up memorials from Covid-19 in sight. During housewarming week, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris watched moments of silence with their spouses at the Lincoln Memorial’s reflection pool, where 400 lanterns temporarily marked the death of 400,000 from the virus. The New York Times has already honored the Covid-19 dead with two honors, the first of which is a full list of the first in May 2020 100,000 Americans are dying from the virus that took up the entire page one before jumping in and the second, a graphic posted on Sunday that depicts each of the first 500,000 die with a black dot.
But these memorial acts are unlikely to result in permanent memorials where we gather for thought. Conventionally, we erect most of our monuments to honor the heroic spirit or to recognize sacrificial acts by soldiers, police officers and 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 reached a heroic position they have never held before. We can therefore assume that the medical workers who died of Covid-19 – from doctors to janitors – will be remembered in granite at some point in this decade. But the other 500,000? Even if they fought heroically for their lives on their deathbeds, we are unlikely to officially institutionalize the memory of their deaths because it is not our way. We quickly forgot about the 1918 pandemic influenza and remembered most clearly only when similar viral threats emerged 1957, 1976 and 2003but then lose sight of death as the crises passed. Our avarice to build shrines to honor people who have died of disease is evident in our response to the AIDS disaster. The AIDS quilt marked the death of this epidemic on tour in the late 1980s 20 cities. (From last year the quilt had grown 1.2 million square feet and is stored in a warehouse in Oakland, California.) No permanent memorial for the yet 700,000 Americans (and counting) to die from this virus exist, though one initiative Building such a place took root in Southern California.
“Everyone knows that pestilence occurs again and again in the world, but somehow we find it difficult to believe in those that fall from a blue sky onto our heads,” wrote Albert Camus The plague. “There have been as many plagues as there have been wars in history, but plagues and wars continue to surprise people alike.” Would building a memorial to the Covid-19 dead increase our vigilance and prepare our minds for the challenge of the next virus wave? Probably no more than that 9/11 memorial and museum have done to protect us from another attack. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
A fitting gesture would be to commission larger-than-life statues of a man and woman in lab coats to honor the scientists who have worked around the world in less than a year half a dozen Approved vaccines that make the virus kneel. As big as any hero who stormed a beach or saved a drowning child, vaccine makers deserve this tribute. By honoring them and maintaining their hopeful heroism, we may be able to remember this outbreak in a way that will help prevent or stop the next one.
I haven’t gotten my bump yet. Send vaccines (two doses, please) to [email protected]. My Email notifications went anti-vaxx before it was trending. My Twitter Food regrets not getting the shingles vaccine. My RSS Feed insists that his vaccines are psychoactive.