Remembering the Coronavirus

George Street, Sydney.

Last night I attended a pleasant farewell dinner for a work colleague. It was at a funky little Indian restaurant below street-level, just a stone’s throw from Wynyard station. After we shared good food, wine, speeches and gifts, we climbed a short set of stairs into the open air and parted ways. The city seemed quieter if not calmer than usual. Anyone reading this at the time of writing probably suspects the reason why.

I want to say a few things about what is happening to us at the moment regarding the coronavirus pandemic. [1] Why? Because when this thing passes, I don’t want to forget how we conducted ourselves. Like Orwell’s third given-reason for writing, I want to write for posterity’s sake. (In case you’re wondering, his other three reasons for writing include ‘egoism,’ ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ and ‘political purpose’). [2]

Let’s begin on a reassuring note.

We are much better placed to cope with a pandemic than our ancestors were capable of. Gina Kolkata, writing for the New York Times provides a brief but compelling insight into the stark difference in scientific, medical and technical know-how between our society and the world of 1918:

…there were no electron microscopes, and the genetic material of viruses had not yet been discovered. Today, however, researchers not only know how to isolate a virus but can find its genetic sequence, test antiviral drugs and develop a vaccine.

In 1918, it was impossible to test people with mild symptoms so they could self-quarantine. And it was nearly impossible to do contact tracing because the flu seemed to infect — and panic — entire cities and communities all at once. Moreover, there was little protective equipment for health care workers, and the supportive care with respirators that can be provided to people very ill with coronavirus did not exist.

The influenza pandemic of 1918, though short lived, had a devastating effect on public health, significantly reducing life expectancy. Thus far, the coronavirus has not put a dint in current life expectancy and Kolkata reminds us that the fatality rates associated with the seasonal flu are far higher. That said, what we share in common with our ancestors she says, is the ‘tenor of public concern’.

But, the questions begs, how did the tenor of public concern manifest itself on the ground in 1918?

It’s not the historian’s role to chronicle what is happening in the present. Their job is to look back and make sense of how societies dealt with public and personal issues, both momentous and seemingly banal. Not just for the love of history (but there is that too) but to help us understand, make sense of and respond to the present. French historian and political scientist Michel Foucault incisively referred to this purposive work as a ‘history of the present’.

For example, I’m curious about what life was like in Sydney 100 years ago during the Spanish Influenza. I don’t have time to do my own research scouring mouldy newspapers in the State Library, for example. But I wonder what, if any, lessons we can draw from our ancestors who lived through that pandemic.

Looking to locally-based historians for fresh insights, Macquarie University’s Dr David Baker writes that because Australia could only be reached by ship at that time, this enabled the country to prepare for the pandemic. Dr Peter Hobbins from the University of Sydney has delved a bit deeper, revealing that the disruption we are seeing at present was mirrored in the past. The pandemic, he tells us, resulted in ‘not only economic hardship, but significant interruptions in education, entertainment, travel, shopping and worship.’ Lamenting the historical blindness to the victims of the Spanish influenza in comparison to the way Anzac soldiers have been memorialised, Hobbins wants to draw attention to the forgotten courage of ordinary Australians, many of them women, who selflessly joined the war-like effort to care for the sick.

Hobbins’s and Baker’s brief narratives on the Australian experience of the Spanish Influenza are valuable and interesting. But their historical musings do not sate the appetite for a deeper dive into what life was like for ordinary Australians at the time.

I wonder how Sydney residents interacted with each other back then, at street-level? How did local officials and community leaders respond to the public health crisis? At the time there were no supermarkets or shopping centres to be raided for their personal care product lines, such as toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitiser and tissues. Personal ownership of motor vehicles and the rolls of dunny paper we hoard in them, did not exist.

Facebook Marketplace toilet paper advertisement.

Because we have come to rely on them so heavily, isn’t it interesting how the modern convenience of the supermarket and family car have facilitated conflict during moments of fear and panic? Case in point is the disturbing scuffle that was recently filmed between two families fighting over toilet paper at a suburban supermarket in Sydney. (I couldn’t be bothered linking to the video. Frankly, it would be gratuitous doing so).

I don’t pretend to know how food and personal necessities were bought and sold 100 years ago. I can only surmise that we were more self-sufficient then, grew our own produce, engaged in barter, travelled mainly by foot, and were still god fearing. But when it comes to historical facts, surmising and assuming is not good enough. I would love a contemporary historian to meaningfully address us, to describe the close-up scenes of everyday life in 1918 Sydney. Doing so, may provide us with ideas and inspiration for learning how to better cope with fear and loathing in 2020.

To conclude, although we may know more than our ancestors did about the genetic make up of viruses, that doesn’t appear to have made us any wiser or kinder as a result.


[1]: I’m aware there is debate as to whether coronavirus is an epidemic or pandemic. Only time will tell.

[2]: Orwell, G 2000 ‘Why I Write’ in Essays Penguin: London pp 3-4.

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