On pandemic history and pandemic amnesia

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been an outpouring of commentary from disease historians. Some of us have been a bit uncomfortable with the call to put on our prognosticator hats, or to distill the ‘lessons’ of the past. Others have pointed out that not all histories are equally told or valued in public and policy discourses about the pandemic. Debate about the historians’ role intersects in fruitful ways with broader critiques of health policy and health inequities. Something possibly transformative is afoot in these conversations.

Media work is noteworthy for the way it unfolds in real time, linked to the interests and obsessions of the moment. Whereas a year ago, I was asked by journalists what lessons could be learned from the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, today I am asked to comment on whether we are about to enter a Roaring Twenties for our millennium. I find this question impossible to answer. We know relatively little about the long-term impacts of the influenza pandemic. We have learned relatively recently that the flu lingered in parts of Canada (as elsewhere) into 1920, and later. As for how individuals, families, and communities ‘recovered’ from that pandemic, much more work needs to be done. But it seems positive to me that our current concerns about recovery may fuel a renewed focus on the question in disease history.

Traditionally, an epidemic is understood by historians, as Charles Rosenberg famously argued, as a drama with a beginning, middle and end. The notion of epidemic ‘waves’ is a different formulation of this idea, from an epidemiological standpoint. There is truth to these concepts as a sort of short hand, but of course they also leave a lot out.

Like every discipline, history has its orthodoxies and it is healthy to shake them up a bit. It’s worth re-thinking from time to time what has tended to count – or, not count — in the field of epidemic disease history. Is an epidemic purely an event? Or is it something that moves beyond linear time? Where does memory fit into our understanding of an ending, and what tensions exist between ‘private’ and ‘public’ memory? What about those grieving COVID-19 losses, for whom the story of the disease in their lives will never end?

The now infamous legacy of the Great Influenza is the act of forgetting. The pandemic was not forgotten by many flu survivors and their families, but it largely disappeared from Canadian history for most of the 20th century.

This history of pandemic amnesia (in which historians themselves played a key part) raises a challenge to researchers and records keepers today, highlighting the silences and absences that can come to surround even such a massive disease event. As a historian, I can’t contribute much to alleviate the grief of families and care providers during COVID-19. But I can urge us to consider the potential for further harm if their experiences are lost to history: not honoured, not recognized. In Canada, the absence of any public narrative or commemoration of influenza pandemic victims for much of the 20th century meant that the tens of thousands impacted families lacked an acknowledged, shared experience; or, a clear way to give their loss meaning in relation to the larger society of which they were a part.

History had forgotten survivors, and so their flu stories appeared unimportant, irrelevant, or perhaps most terribly, shameful. Flu victims became ghosts. Is this something we wish to repeat?

It is remarkable how these silences are already re-appearing in the current pandemic. As we move into post-pandemic thinking, however circumscribed and contingent the notion of being ‘post’ anything is for the time being, questions of memory, preservation, and whose voices constitute history are already emerging as critical.

The roundtable “Preserving COVID Experiences,” hosted by the Royal Society of Canada COVID-19 Taskforce in spring 2021, explored the diversity of lived experiences of the pandemic, and called for preservation work to capture stories and data, before they are lost. The panel included myself; historian and digital archives specialist Prof. Ian Milligan (Waterloo); Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Director of Health Equity at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health; and Cheryl Prescod, Executive Director of Black Creek Community Health Centre, which is located in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood. As Dr. McKenzie noted, the inequities of COVID-19 are already being lost.

We seem to have a problem with selective memory. Especially when it comes to inconvenient truths and histories of marginalized people. That’s a problem. It’s a problem because inconvenient truths stop us making the same mistakes over and over again. It’s remembering that allows us to forge new paths.

Kwame McKenzie

Some ideas for what Canadian policy makers can do to ensure the future availability of a robust and diverse historical record on COVID are laid out in the RSC Policy Briefing Remembering is a Form of Honouring: Preserving the COVID-19 Archival Record.

When I speak to public audiences about the history of the influenza pandemic, each encounter teaches me something new. The past year, however, has been a crucible, pushing new considerations forward, calling out historical absences and injustices. In Black Lives Matter and Indigenous resistance, for example, we witness the emergence of alternate, powerful forms of response to the epidemic moment. What Raymond Williams called new “structures of feeling” have emerged during this pandemic, drawing all of our minds toward our shared fate and the necessity of communal solutions and the pursuit of greater equity. What this all means is not fully worked out yet. But this is an incredibly poignant time to read, write and think about pandemics.


About the Author

Image pf Esyllt Jones

Esyllt Jones is a professor in the Department of History, as well as Dean of Studies, St. John’s College, at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. She is the author of several books including Influenza 1918: Death, Disease and Struggle in Winnipeg (University of Toronto Press, 2007).

Email: info@pandemichistories.ca