We All Forgot About the Flu of 1918 Because of WWI

And now we have to pay for it

1918 flu
This is what happens when you don't learn from the past.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
By Carl Caminetti / May 15, 2020 7:30 am

If you were surprised to realize that you hadn’t really heard much about the 1918 flu pandemic before COVID-19 hit, you’re not alone. Despite ravaging society on a scale unseen since the bubonic plague took over Europe in the Middle Ages, the 1918 pandemic largely evaporated from the American consciousness once it finally died out.

Monuments commemorating the pandemic and the lives it took are few and far between, and the first major account of the devastating disease wasn’t released until 1976, when Alfred Crosby published Epidemic and Peace — which was later reissued under the title, America’s Forgotten Pandemic.

According to The New York Times, the flu’s rapid disappearance from the American memory can be largely attributed to the fact that there were bigger things going on — namely, World War I. Despite the fact that the war itself had a major role in spreading the disease, its cultural impact largely overshadowed the pandemic it helped exacerbate.

Moreover, as Catharine Arnold, the author of Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts From the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History, noted, dying from the flu wasn’t exactly cool, especially when there were men dying more “manly” deaths in battle.

“To die in a firefight, that reflected well on your family. But to die in a hospital bed, turning blue, puking, beset by diarrhea — that was difficult for loved ones to accept,” said Arnold. “There was a mass decision to forget.”

Unfortunately, deciding to sweep the pandemic under the rug may have cost future generations dearly, with scholars arguing that America’s mass memory lapse may partially explain the country’s ill preparation for the current pandemic. Maybe this time we’ll learn our lesson.

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