One of the persistent parallels being drawn today concerns our current pandemic and that of the Spanish Influenza variety, which struck in at least three cycles from 1918 to 1919. Most disconcerting among the messages touting the potential repeat of infectious history is the thought that a second round of Covid-19 will have the same devastating effect as round two in the fall of 1918. October of that year is said to have been the deadliest month in U. S. history.
No one today, no matter how well trained in the study of infectious diseases, can truthfully say yes or no to the question of “Will there be a second round?” And if there is, “Will it prove to be deadlier than the first?” But the dire warning of a second deadly cycle persists in social media posts.
One major factor missing now that was prevalent then is that the world was engaged in another type of pandemic, World War I. Young men from a wide array of nations were packed into close contact to one another on board troop ships destined for the worst of conditions trench warfare can manifest. Aided and abetted by these horrendous factors the milder virus at the heart of the spring outbreak apparently mutated into something far more aggressive and deadly.
Healthy young men succumbed to the disease at a higher rate than anticipated. Scientists of that era had no clue what a virus was. No medical treatments worked. The cloth masks of the day were too porous to prevent the unknown culprit of microscopic particulates from being inhaled. And attempts at non-medical intervention – store closings and social distancing – were inconsistently invoked. In light of everyone’s ignorance about the nature of the disease, the specter of an angel of death prevailed.
November 1918 saw the rapid decline of influenza cases and the end of the war. The virus continued to mutate but into a weakened state that was less contagious and less deadly. The consensus is that a third outbreak did occur in the spring of 1919, ending by late summer. Some scientists do suggest that a fourth round occurred in 1920, but the lack of evidence prevents a consensus on this.
The world, especially in the West, entered a new normal following the ravages of both war and disease. It was surprisingly anything but dismal and restrictive. The people who survived the scourge of war and the unexplained peril of the most deadly disease since the Black Plague went ballistic. We call that period of euphoric celebration the Roaring Twenties. In France it was known simply as annees folles, the crazy years. Think flapper, jazz, dance marathons, bathtub gin and flagpole sitting (all pursued in the spirit of anything goes) and you get the cultural drift of the age. Prosperity was rampant, though built on a bubble as the 1929 stock market crash would eventually prove.
So here we are on the verge of the 20s again. And if we are drawing parallels between our current crisis and that of a hundred years ago, my question is “Will the 20s roar again?” Will we be just as enthusiastic for a new wave of personal freedom like the survivors of a prior century, when they were released from the bondage of unassailable death on the home front? And will it be just as frivolous; a victimless crime of passion in the form of an ostentatious display of carnal wealth?
Here is my prognosis.
What we want, we want now! Forgetfulness is in our collective DNA coupled with a type of fatalism that invites self-gratification at every level while there’s still time. Social distancing, obsessive hand washing, surgical masks and business closures will dissipate in the mist of the past as uncomfortable experiences always do. This is the type of mindset that comes with being human. It mutates of its own volition in the hearts of every consumer; a passion which crosses the lines of class, culture and complexion.
Of course the 20s will roar! The difference this time will be the range of activities on display in the grab for pleasure. The richest will be able to finance a faux bohemian lifestyle emulating the Left Bank of the 1920s, while the poorest will still be poor and angry and potentially volatile. Expect the current decade to roar if only at this flagrant disparity.