Flu Themes

The main themes in Flu are pandemics and public memory, the labor of science, and obstacles to scientific progress.

  • Pandemics and public memory: Scientists emphasize that it is crucial to remember and learn from past pandemics, despite their traumatic nature.
  • The labor of science: Kolata’s explanations of scientists’ years of work and passion indicate the sheer amount of labor scientific discovery requires.
  • Obstacles to scientific progress: Through description of events such as the 1976 US flu outbreak and vaccinations, Kolata shows how political, journalistic, and societal forces can hinder scientific understanding and public safety.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on May 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311

Pandemics and Public Memory

One of the most important themes of Flu is the role public memory and record-keeping have played in pandemics throughout history. Kolata notes that before coming across an article on the 1918 flu in the late 1990s, her own knowledge of the deadly influenza had been sketchy, despite her background in science and journalism.

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It wasn’t a coincidence: the 1918 flu epidemic barely finds mention in science and history textbooks, despite the “grim swath” it cut across the world. It is a pandemic committed to public amnesia, though it was unparalleled in the last few centuries. The pandemic killed anywhere between twenty and one hundred million people worldwide in 1918. It devastated families and decimated populations of entire villages. Historian Alfred W. Crosby notes that world almanacs of the time show that the life expectancy of Americans fell from fifty-one years in 1917 to thirty-nine in 1919—a decline he attributes to the skewing effect of the flu.

Given the magnitude of its impact, it is perplexing why the 1918 influenza is so little discussed, especially given that its lessons may help in future pandemic preparedness. However, when Kolata researches “plagues” or pandemics through history, she finds a similar pattern around outbreaks. After such outbreaks as the 1831 cholera epidemic in England, which killed 140,000 people, those who survived may have simply wanted to forget.

One reason public memory allows such pandemics to slip away is perhaps to protect the psyche from post-traumatic stress. Dr. Victor C. Vaughan, a physician who witnessed the horrifying deaths of young, previously healthy soldiers in Massachusetts in 1918, wrote that his memories were “ghastly ones” that he wished to tear away from his brain, if only they weren’t “inscribed” upon it. Already brought to a breaking point by the experience of a pandemic, communities tend to put the event out of their memory in order to keep functioning.

According to Crosby, in the case of the 1918 pandemic, the horror of the disease was amplified in the minds of those who lived through it, particularly because it fused with the “nightmare” of World War I, the first war in history fought using modern technology and chemical warfare. Further, the 1918 pandemic punctured the bubble of well-being that had pervaded the prewar years: with diseases such as tuberculosis losing their bite, the West assumed that epidemics were a thing of the past. Collective memory was eager to return to that naive state and dismiss the 1918 flu as an aberration.

However, Kolata notes that remembering and recording pandemics is essential to better deal with the next deadly virus. At the time of Flu’s publication in 1999, the threat of a new strain of bird flu has already emerged in Hong Kong. The idea that human progress equates to a victory over viruses has long been dismissed. The question around the next pandemic, then, is not if but when . Research shows that every pandemic offers a lesson: for instance, the cholera pandemic of 1831 led to a slew of public health and hygiene measures that forever changed Western cities for the better. For the light it throws on the...

(The entire section contains 1311 words.)

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