Pandemic Rhymes: Oral history and the 1918 Flu pandemic

This week in my oral history class, I shared with students some oral histories collected in 2007/8 with survivors of the 1918 Flu pandemic. It’s often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, and in this case, the resonances with our own pandemic era were very pointed for me and my students.

Descriptions of social distancing and the loneliness of a childhood touched by epidemic in this 2007 interview bring to mind our children’s and our loss of physical contact and connection to one another.

This week in my oral history class, I shared with students some oral histories collected in 2008 with survivors of the 1918 Flu pandemic. It’s often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes, and in this case, the resonances with our own pandemic era were very pointed for me and my students in some of the interviews we listened to.

Here I share two in particular that spoke to us. Both narrators were about 10-11 years old when the epidemic was first active.

1918 Flu Pandemic Oral History – 100 Year Old Remembers

Descriptions of social distancing and the loneliness of a childhood touched by epidemic brought to mind the way our own children’s world came to a screeching halt, robbing them of the social world of school and prohibiting contact and play with friends.

The image of the empty pews on all sides conveys the loss of physical contact and connection to one another, embodied in his poetic repetition of “empty” and “emptiness.”

Mrs. Edna Boone, from Alabama, conveys the cataclysmic feeling suddenly confronting “a new disease” that is powerful, unknown, and untreatable. Coming during World War I, amidst the devastation of the boll weevil, the sense of political, economic, climate, and public health crisis must have been overwhelming, Her descriptions of her family’s role as care givers for their community calls to mind the role and exhaustion of front line workers who keep people fed and cared for. Memories of bodies waiting outside the doctor’s office to be treated resonate with images of today’s overwhelmed hospitals today.

Ms. Boone’s folk medicine – a spoonful of bicarbonate in water daily – while less extreme than bleach drinking or administrations of ivermectin – remind us that humans will make sense of what is happening in terms of their folk knowledge and practices. Boone’s mother also took precautions consistent with scientific knowledge – boiling food containers and making her daughter cover her face when interacting with those who were afflicted. There were anti-maskers in 1918 too, but in Boone’s telling, the community came together when faced with crisis and shared loss. Perhaps the inequalities of our own age shape the fragmented way in which we have experienced this pandemic as a society, and Boone’s community was small and likely homogenous. But in the midst of our own political and social polarization, the narrative of shared suffering offers lessons in the power of communal grief and shared sense of duty.

I think we can all relate to the some of the exhaustion Ms. Boone’s mother felt too.

Other 1918 memories can be found at: Going Viral: Impact and Implications of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, from the Southern Oral History Program

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