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

People of all political convictions and stations in life started cooperating in a city otherwise riven by the class divisions of early industrial society.

Ostersunds-Posten moved from simply reporting on the epidemic to helping to organize relief, publishing calls for money, food and clothing, and opening its offices for use as storerooms.

The state had proven itself inadequate, as historian Hans Jacobsson wrote: “The catastrophic spread of the Spanish flu in 1918 was in no small part down to the authorities’ bewilderment and often clumsy reactions.”

He cites the fact that Stockholm High Command refused to halt planned military exercises for weeks, despite the overflowing regimental sickbays.

“What is interesting is that, after the epidemic, the state dropped investigations against Lignell and made tentative steps towards a cooperative approach to social reform. Issues such as poor nutrition and housing were on the political agenda,” Hedlund said.

Anyone trying to date the inception of Sweden’s welfare state cannot overlook the events of autumn 1918.

One hundred years on, there are few better places than Ostersund to see the effects of Sweden’s much-vaunted social model.

The city is once again growing rapidly, but nothing could seem further away than epidemics and political radicalism.

The left-of-center Social Democrats have been in power in city hall since 1994, and council leader AnnSofie Andersson has made housing a priority — new developments are spacious, well-ordered and equipped with schools and playgrounds.

“There’s nothing that shows confidence like building stuff,” she said. “In fact, our local authority building partnership should, in my view, keep a small excess of flats in hand, because without a reserve people won’t move here.”

Ostersund attracts a net inflow of people from southern Sweden.

“It’s partly a quality of life issue,” Andersson said. “You can drop your kids off at kindergarten in the morning on the way to work and be out hiking or skiing by late afternoon.”

The city has recovered from the relocation of the Swedish armed forces fighter jet squadron in the 1990s by playing to its strengths: sports and tourism.

A university now occupies the old barracks with a special focus on sports materials and technology. The airbase has become a thriving airport, handling half a million passengers a year.

However, despite the net inflow of working-age people, Ostersund is facing a demographic challenge as baby boomers begin to retire.

The shortages are being felt most acutely at the regional health authority, which occupies the Epidemisjukhus — the building hastily converted into wards during the Spanish flu by Carl Lignell.

Clinical staff are proving hard to find and retain, and the region’s health service is underfunded.

Some residents still suggest solving that lack of funding from central government “the Jamtland way,” as Lignell once did.

History does not repeat itself identically, though. Sweden’s consensus-orientated political model now tends to defuse conflict even in proud cities with a liking for mavericks.

One of Andersson’s strategies for dealing with the approaching lack of labor, for instance, is cooperating with local and national institutions to train up the young refugees the city has welcomed since 2015.

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