It once perplexed me to learn that in 1918 the Spanish flu remained largely unreported.
Public health officials and politicians underplayed the severity of the 1918 pandemic to preserve public order and to avoid panic. As a result there was less coverage in the press in a bid to keep morale high in the countries fighting in the First World War.
It was named the Spanish flu, not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was neutral and therefore their press were able to fully report its extent.
There are traces within our own archives at the Free Press, it might not be on the news pages but you can see it in the death notices. It is in the sheer number of them.
We’d gotten off lightly during the first wave. The forgotten corner. The south west of Scotland. A place where things happen elsewhere. Then, when Covid ripped through the community at breakneck speed in the run-up to Christmas, Stranraer was to become the example set for, indeed, how fast the virus could spread through a town.
For the first time, I had understood why reporting on the 1918 pandemic was repressed.
In the news
“What the hell is going on down there?” a journalist friend in Edinburgh asked. “I’ve just seen the numbers and they are off the chart.” According to the figures, it was 1 in 25 who had been infected at that point.
As we all judged the scenes of those fleeing a London lockdown before Christmas, it was easy to pass scorn on social media at those who tried to board a train before lockdown. “I know for a fact it was the buses from Glasgow,” I was told on my dog walk.
The virus had already arrived here. It had arrived when the restrictions were at level one, and Christmas cheer was in the air. We could watch football in a stadium. We were able to drink pints without a main meal. We even had indoor Christmas fairs. Things were looking good. But we were lured into a false sense of security.
“It was the campervans. They never stopped coming,” a shopkeeper told me.
When the chief public health officer calls Stranraer “the Covid capital of Scotland”, a town that barely gets a mention on the radar for any other political issue, we had to report his words.
“This is disgusting, why would you think this was an appropriate headline?” The anger and outrage that followed when our modest local paper reported on the figures was unexpected. Naively, I thought it would help the public health message to share the front page on Facebook to recognise that it was serious now.
“Why can’t they show kindness and compassion. I can’t wait until it closes for good,” the outrage persisted on our FB page.
It is a cardinal sin to respond to the criticism under the line. Especially Facebook criticism. Especially when emotions are heightened. Adrenaline pumping, I’d already drafted the response: “Be kind? It’s hard to take lessons in kindness and compassion from a person who is seeking for us to all be made redundant during the pandemic.”
The pain of reality
It was too much. After nearly a year of the pandemic, when I thought I had it all together, it all fell apart and I cried. I’ve been on my own for most of it. I had been pacing around a town that I had never experienced open. And now I am writing about the deaths of people I had only just met.
The inability to place your hand on another person’s, to offer them a cup of tea or to distract them with small talk. The death knock. Instead, as the notices build up in the newsagent’s window, it was a sobering effect of just how much the pandemic has dehumanised us at our most vulnerable. And the technological barrier between us was disconnecting us further.
Everyone has an opinion on how they would have reported the story. And if it was the right thing to do at all.
Backlash demanded ‘more good news’. Backlash demanded that this would bring an end finally to the local paper. Somebody must take the hit for the pain the community is suffering. It is understandable, people being scared, worried, a collective fear for the mental health of the community already experiencing the impact in real time. Trying to seek good news when this was going on felt like denial on our part.
The tension between reporting the facts and the grave reality of the situation and the responsibility to boost morale is laid out in front of you as a reporter.
But without the local paper, Covid would remain statistical. Abstract. Unreported.
And it must be remembered.
Main image by the author
Tim Bell says
In the aftermath of the non-conviction of Donald Trump at the USA Senate, an American academic was asked for the biggest single lesson of the whole episode of The Great Lie: “Keep the news local” he said, where you can verify it and discuss it.