Pandemic amnesia: Will our children tell Covid stories?

Sascha Polkey muses on forgotten pandemics past and post-pandemic trends.

From where we are, mid-pandemic, it seems like we are at a critical point in humanity, a moment that will forever change how we live and work. Not to minimise the very real and heart-breaking experiences of so many people at the moment but looking back in history we’ve been through far worse and all but forgotten about it. In fact, despite infecting 500 million people and killing an estimated 50-100 million, the Spanish Flu (1918-1919) is known as the forgotten pandemic because it has been largely ignored by storytellers and filmmakers, who chose instead to focus on stories from World War I and II.

Even more recently in time, the seldom discussed Asian Flu spread from Asia into America from 1957-1958, and the Hong Kong Flu (1968 -1969) also made its way from what was then the British protectorate into Asia, Africa, parts of Europe and then crossed over into the Americas with the soldiers who returned from the Vietnam War.

We may not have even heard of these outbreaks, but each pandemic killed anywhere between 1 and 4 million people, statistics which are generally based on excess deaths for lack of other data. Our global death toll for Covid-19 in a data-rich 2021 is now just over 2 million with hopes for a wide-reaching vaccine solution imminent. 

So why the collective amnesia and will we blink and forget it all over again? Certainly, the cultural effects of the Spanish Flu may have been rolled into the overwhelming impact of wars and the economic collapse that characterised the first part of the twentieth century. The hedonism of the 1920’s oozed out of the repression and drudgery of war and crippling economic collapse whereas Covid-19 came to us at a time of late-stage capitalism in overdrive – mega-consumption and spiralling inequality – putting a very abrupt stop to business as usual and forcing us all to scurry home and stop. 

All three of the major twentieth century pandemics were experienced without lightning-fast internet, highly developed science and a sprawling global social media network which may amplify the social impact of Covid-19 but perhaps only briefly in a fast-paced cultural narrative. The span and intensity of international travel today has also ensured that the pandemic has literally spread to every corner of the world – but unlike the government response to the Spanish Flu which was ‘too little, too late’, the global response to Covid-19 was far more organised and unified – leadership styles and personalities aside.

Where previous pandemics made a marked impact is that they were catalysts for social change, particularly around healthcare and welfare. This pandemic is also highlighting the need for equitable care and economic security and may result in lasting changes like universal basic income and more free global access to medicines and healthcare. 

For many individuals, Covid will forever change their family history and the grief it has brought will never be forgotten but with the majority of the population escaping any negative outcome, it’s too soon to tell whether the impact of Covid will infiltrate our media and design in any lasting way.

Current trends are most definitely reflecting on a deep affinity with home – home as place of safety and sanctuary and home as a multi-purpose, shifting space for work, relaxation and imagination. Despite having emerged in the early days of Instagram, Cottage Core has come into its own as pandemic-weary souls yearn for the safety and predictability of agrarian life and a romanticised harmony with nature. 

Pared down from its excessive fantastical flounce, Cottage Core translates into raw natural fibres and textures, repurposed hand me downs and precious heirlooms, messy bunches of hand-picked flowers to press later and piles of hand-made paper notebooks on standby for handwritten metaphysical musings. Post-sweatpants, we find it in fashion with soft feminine country aesthetics like lace and linen woven into dreamy long prairie dresses. 

The trend flows up into textured woven textiles, silks and satins. Think Netflix blockbuster Bridgerton but pared right down into minimal, modern versions that add comfort and simplicity into the domestic mix. Faces are natural; glowing with health and sun-kissed; serenely shaped by full, fluffy eyebrows, fluttery lashes and blush cheeks. 

The hard lines and supreme minimalism pre-pandemic have given way to a softer, more wholesome and comfortable look, a gentle bubble into which we can escape from a world gone mad, but it will be interesting to see what takes shape when we are done with the simple life and the threat of this pandemic has passed.

Most global downturns are followed by an economic boom (here’s hoping) and a period of intense activity, adventure and change. These factors will likely impact heavily on the shape of décor and fashion as we move beyond the front door to gather and hug and experience the world again. Will we be so busy moving forward that we forget to look back? 

Words Sascha Polkey
Production Sascha Polkey and JP de la Chaumette
Sascha is the owner of Rabbit in a Hat Communications in Cape Town, South Africa

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