The whole city lay under an epidemic of discreet, infectious fear. I could feel it, like influenza, in my bones.Christopher Isherwood – the Berlin Stories
What we are going through right now is easily comparable to other times in history. The 1918 flu pandemic for example, the commonly mis-labeled Spanish flu, has been rolled out in several podcasts. This episode of Throughline goes into the recorded history of the 1918 flu.
The Second World War was compared to the 1918 flu, as is illustrated in the quote I used to start this article. I was made aware of this comparison by listening to John Barry in this episode of Why Is This Happening?
What isn’t remembered is the pervasive fear. I know it isn’t remembered because I lived in San Angelo for more than a decade, and yet I have never heard this story before.
…when San Angelo had a breakout of polio in 1949 – the hardest- hit town per capita that year in the U.S. – it was horrifying in scope for the city of 50,000. Sixty children in San Angelo came down with polio in one summer. Many died. Movie theaters and swimming pools and public gatherings were shut down. Travelers passing through would roll up their windows so as not to breathe the potentially contaminated air. They wouldn’t even fill up a low tire at the gas station for fear of taking the virus with them. Some residents refused to talk on the phone with anyone, believing that perhaps, somehow, polio could travel through the phone lines.
This kind of fear gripped Texas every summer for years. Parents would not let their children swim or go to summer camp or do anything in groups in an effort to keep them safe. Houses were kept spotless and were scrubbed top to bottom to kill all the germs. In fact, Wooten told me, “When mothers lost a child to polio they suffered added anguish because they felt they would be judged as bad mothers and poor housekeepers. They would explain to reporters that ‘they had always kept a very clean house and didn’t understand how this could have happened.’ ”TexasStandard.org
…even without the orders to shelter in place, people would still not be going out and participating in public events as if there wasn’t an active pandemic. The fear would keep most of us inside anyway. That is the sensible side of your brain talking, in conditions like we are facing right now. Listen to it when it makes sense for once.