Fri, Sep 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

How Spanish flu shaped
a modern welfare state

The 1918 pandemic ravaged Ostersund in Sweden, but its legacy is a city, and a country, that is well-equipped to deal with challenges in the 21st century

By Brian Melican  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

On Sept. 15, 1918, a 12-year-old boy named Karl Karlsson who lived just outside Ostersund, Sweden, wrote a short diary entry: “Two who died of Spanish flu buried today. A few snowflakes in the air.”

For all its brevity and matter-of-fact tone, Karlsson’s journal makes grim reading.

It is 100 years since a particularly virulent strain of avian flu, known as the Spanish flu, despite probably originating in the US, ravaged the globe, killing somewhere between 50 million and 100 million people.

While its effects were felt everywhere, it struck particularly hard in Ostersund, earning the city the nickname “capital of the Spanish flu.”

“Looking back through contemporaneous accounts was quite creepy,” said Jim Hedlund of the city’s state archive. “As many people died in two months as generally died in a whole year. I even found out that three of my forbears were buried on the same day.”

There were three main reasons why the flu hit this remote city so hard: Ostersund had speedy railway connections, several army regiments stationed in close quarters and a malnourished population living in cramped accommodation.

As neutral Sweden kept its armed forces on high alert between 1914 and 1918, the garrison town’s population swelled from 9,000 to 13,000.

By 1917, when navvies poured in and construction started on an inland railway to the north, widespread food shortages had led to violent workers’ demonstrations and a near mutiny among the army units.

The city became a hotbed of political activism. Its small size put the unequal distribution of wealth in early industrial society under the microscope.

While working-class families crowded into insalubrious accommodation, wealthy tourists from other parts of Sweden and further afield came for the fresh mountain air and restorative waters, as well as the excellent fishing and elk hunting.

A passionate angler, Winston Churchill was even a regular visitor.

“Many of the demonstrators’ concerns seem strikingly modern,” Hedlund said, pointing to a copy of a political poster that reads: “Tourists out of our buildings in times of crisis. Butter, milk and potatoes for workers!”

It was not just the urban proletariat demanding better accommodation.

At Sweden’s first national convention of the indigenous Sami peoples held in Ostersund in early 1918, delegates demanded an end to discriminatory policies that forced them to live in tents.

Social inequality in the city meant the Spanish flu hit all the harder.

As the epidemic raged in late August, when about 20 people were dying daily, the city’s bank director Carl Lignell withdrew funds from Stockholm without authorization and requisitioned a school for use as a hospital, as the city did not have one.

“If it hadn’t been for him, Ostersund might quite literally have disappeared,” Hedlund said.

For a brief period, Lignell worked like a benevolent dictator, quarantining suspected cases in their homes — and revealing the squalor in which they lived.

As his hastily convened medical team moved through Ostersund, they found whole families crowded into wooden shacks, just a few streets away from the proud, stone-built civic structures. In some homes, sick children lay on the floor for want of beds.

“Who would have thought that in our fine city there could be such awful destitution?” newspaper Ostersunds-Posten asked rhetorically.

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