Thinking past coronavirus

Thinking past coronavirus

At the moment it’s difficult to think past coronavirus, this thing which hangs over us all. And in this connection it’s salutary to think about the 1918 influenza and pneumonia pandemic that swept the world and killed between 50 and 200 million people, for the exact numbers are not known. Little was known about this in any country before it happened in them, and the populations of which were affected in huge numbers within a few short days of first symptoms. Olive Schreiner’s letters record her in London having had influenza and pneumonia twice in an 18 month period, while in the Hemming collection letters from Schreiner‘s nephew Elbert Hemming and his wife Norah, living in what is now Zimbabwe, suddenly stopped. They died within probably an hour or so of each other, and it took weeks before anybody knew even locally because so many people were affected, and also letters took a long time to travel even to Elbert’s sisters in Cape Town so a few week’s silence was not unusual.

In general across letters from this time, there are occasional comments about periods of illness, but there is little of its dominating presence inculcated by an omnipresent and largely doomsday reporting by mass media of different kinds that is occurring now. Yes of course, for some the influenza and pneumonia pandemic was a dominating feature of life and death in the midst of life, but there is little sense that lives in general were overwhelmed and that people were panicking on a mass scale.

It’s also interesting to think about letters and related forms of communication in the context of separation in the light of coronavirus. What might be being written now and what impact might the current pandemic be having on how epistolarity in one or all of its many incarnations is being used? It has certainly brought home a keen sense of one world, that our fortunes and fates are indissolubly connected, so there is the possibility of an upsurge in epistolary exchanges occurring as a consequence.

Last updated: 19 March 2020


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