Think back to December 2019. It was a simpler time. A time before national lockdowns, weekly Zoom quizzes, and masking-up to queue for half an hour outside Sainsbury’s.
For most of us in the UK, Covid-19 was but a distant news story and, as our anticipation for the new decade increased, so too did the ‘Roaring Twenties’ references. Leonardo DiCaprio raised a glass at us all from The Great Gatsby GIFs that flooded our social media feeds, and our biggest concern was where to find a flapper dress for the 1920s themed New Year’s Eve party. Welcome to the 2020s, old sport!
Little did we know how apt the 1920s references would turn out to be, because while the inter-war decade is remembered for all things lavish and liberal, it also saw the world recovering from a global health crisis.
The Spanish flu was a deadly pandemic of an influenza virus that, over about two years, infected one-third of the world’s population and resulted in at least 50 million deaths. To put that into some painful perspective: the Spanish flu claimed more lives than World War One.
To avoid this article becoming a fear-mongering black hole, it’s worth emphasising that Coronavirus is not the Spanish flu. They are two entirely different viruses. Moreover, the world of the 1920s is unequivocally not the same world we live in today. Medicine has come a long way and, when the Spanish flu hit in 1918, flu vaccines were still decades away.
That said, it’s eerie to consider that almost one century on, we too find ourselves reeling from a global pandemic. And with these being – brace yourself – strange and unprecedented times, we should be forgiven for looking to the past for clues on our future.
One of the more practical consequences of the Spanish flu was the shake-up in people’s attitude towards healthcare – a shake-up that arguably paved the way for the NHS in England decades later. Advocates had been pushing for a more universal healthcare system long before the 1918 pandemic. However, the widespread tragedy of the Spanish flu proved to many critics that sickness struck everyone, regardless of class and race.
While this sounds obvious now, it contradicted the popular Victorian notion that society was made up of two types of people, the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, and that sickness and poverty could be solved with hard work and a stiff upper lip.
On the opposite end of the medical spectrum, science writers such as Laura Spinney claim that after the pandemic, many people were disillusioned with medical science and turned towards alternative medicine for answers. So, whether we see changes in the NHS or we all rush to out buy healing crystals, perhaps an upheaval in our approach to medicine and healthcare is on the horizon.
The 1920s also experienced a baby boom – a population peak that has long been credited to the surge of soldiers returning home after World War One. However, some modern academics argue the Spanish flu was just as responsible, for reasons that are less romantic and more evolutionary.
One horribly unique characteristic of Spanish flu was that, unlike in our current pandemic, it was the 20–40 age group that was hardest hit. As such, the virus left in its wake a smaller population of healthier people able to reproduce at higher rates. It makes sense when you consider that Norway, a country that was neutral in the war but was struck by the Spanish flu, also experienced a baby boom in the 1920s.
Time will tell whether the world experiences a burst of nesting instinct in the shadow of Covid-19. However, as for the immediate weeks and months once lockdown is lifted, it’s hard not to imagine people fleeing away from their homes – and their lockdown partners – as quickly as possible.
The second ‘boom’ of the 1920s was the cultural boom. You will have seen the inspirational social media posts claiming that from the ashes of Covid-19 will come a renaissance like the one that swept across Europe after the Black Death. In the 1920s, that renaissance came in the form of the Bright Young Things – the beautiful, creative, liberal thinkers who perfectly encapsulate our ideas of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
After the ravages of the war and the Spanish flu, this sect of society – made up mostly of young aristocrats – was fuelled by pure carpe diem energy. They rebelled against lingering Victorian conservatism and, alongside the partying and substance abuse, were responsible for a wave of seminal art and literature. This is the same circle that gave us the authors Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, photographer Cecil Beaton, and poet Siegfried Sassoon.
However, the sad truth is that this creative renaissance was only the shiny tip of the 1920s social iceberg. In reality, the Bright Young Things masked a struggling economy and soaring unemployment figures.
So long, Wall Street
Here, it becomes even harder to distinguish between the impact of World War One and the effects of the Spanish flu. Either way, the 1920s was rife with economic troubles, made worse by poor government decisions which resulted in greater unemployment and deflation.
This is perhaps a little too close to home, so let’s skip to 1929 when the economic decline hit rock bottom with the Wall Street Crash. Starting in the New York Stock Exchange, this economic collapse triggered what is upliftingly called the Great Depression worldwide. Fortunately, in Britain at least, the 1930s brought a steady economic incline.
It can often be dangerous to look to history for answers, and it’s important to take your findings with a heavy pinch of perspective. It’s also worth reiterating that a lot has changed in 100 years. We have modern medicine, vaccines, national healthcare and, perhaps most importantly, we aren’t also reeling from a world war.
However, if we take one thing from the 1920s post-pandemic experience, it’s that the world is likely to change, both for the better and for the worse. Also, it’s got to be worth keeping hold of that flapper dress from New Year’s. The opportunity to become a Bright Young Thing might just come back around.