Historians on the Lessons from 1918's Pandemic FatigueHistorians in the News
tags: public health, pandemics, medical history
Two decades after surviving an influenza pandemic that devastated the United States, Katherine Anne Porter recounted her experiences in one of the best-known accounts of the period—the 1939 novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider.
In her story, Porter describes how many young people felt as though their lives were threatened by the dual strike of a deadly virus and World War I. Miranda, the main character, recovers from influenza, but sinks into depression as she attempts to rejoin society. The novella ends on a note of optimism, however, where Miranda dreams of a world with no war and no more plague, and she’d have time for “everything.”
Historians say it’s unclear when the 1918 flu actually did end—and that’s partly because Americans were as tired of the flu as they are now after two years of COVID-19. Although cases continued to spike in 1920 and beyond, much of the historical record of the pandemic is from its first two years. Porter’s novella is one of the few written accounts of its enduring trauma and formal efforts to document the disease ultimately failed because Americans in the early 20th century simply wanted to forget the flu.
Similarly, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, fatigue has grown—alongside arguments about when to loosen public health measures like mask and vaccine mandates. But historian Nancy Bristow, who wrote about the novella in her book American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, says that while going back to a pre-pandemic normal may be appealing, history shows it could have harmful implications both for this pandemic—and the next one.
“That drive to not have to do what we’ve been doing carries with it a great potential to forget,” she says. “The ways in which Americans continue to think that these kinds of things won’t happen to us, that kind of American exceptionalism, you can only do that if you are a nation that is very, very capable of forgetting moments of its past.”
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