[When the Spanish flu hit the Swedish city of Östersund in 1918,
the rampant social inequality ensured its devastating impact. But the
legacy of the “capital of the Spanish flu” is a city and country
better equipped to deal with current challenges. ]
[https://portside.org/] 

 HOW THE SPANISH FLU HELPED CREATE SWEDEN'S MODERN WELFARE STATE  
[https://portside.org/2018-09-08/how-spanish-flu-helped-create-swedens-modern-welfare-state]


 

 Brian Melican 
 August 29, 2018
The Guardian
[https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/aug/29/how-spanish-influenza-helped-create-sweden-modern-welfare-state-ostersund]


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 _ When the Spanish flu hit the Swedish city of Östersund in 1918,
the rampant social inequality ensured its devastating impact. But the
legacy of the “capital of the Spanish flu” is a city and country
better equipped to deal with current challenges. _ 

 In 1918 the so-called Spanish flu devastated the remote Swedish city
of Östersund. , Photograph: Alamy 

 

On 15 September 1918, a 12-year-old boy named Karl Karlsson who lived
just outside Östersund, Sweden
[https://www.theguardian.com/world/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 America, ravaged the globe, killing somewhere between
50 million and 100 million people
[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/25/spanish-flu-pandemic-1918-forgetting-100-million-deaths].
While its effects were felt everywhere, it struck particularly hard in
Östersund, earning the city the nickname “capital of the Spanish
flu”.

“Looking back through contemporaneous accounts was quite creepy,”
says Jim Hedlund at 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: Östersund 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 (passionate angler
Winston Churchill was a regular visitor). 

“Many of the demonstrators’ concerns seem strikingly modern,”
says Hedlund, 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 wasn’t just the urban proletariat demanding better accommodation.
At Sweden’s first ever national convention of the indigenous Sami
peoples held in Östersund 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 around 20 people were dying
daily, the city’s bank director Carl Lignell withdrew funds from
Stockholm without authorisation and requisitioned a school for use as
a hospital (the city didn’t have one). 

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

The local newspaper Östersunds-Posten asked rhetorically: “Who
would have thought that in our fine city there could be such awful
destitution?”

People of all political convictions and stations in life started
cooperating in a city otherwise riven by the class divisions of early
industrial society. Östersunds-Posten itself moved from simply
reporting on the epidemic to helping to organise 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 fact that regimental
sickbays were overflowing. “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,” says Hedlund. 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 Östersund 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 centre 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
says. “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.”

Östersund attracts a net inflow of people from southern Sweden.
“It’s partly a quality of life issue,” says Andersson. “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.

Despite the net inflow of working-age people however, Östersund 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 Jämtland way”,
like Lignell once did

History doesn’t 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 labour, for
instance, is cooperating with local and national institutions to train
up the young refugees the city has welcomed since 2015.

“School starts tomorrow – for the last time,” confides Karl
Karlsson to his journal on 4 September 1918. “I leave in spring and
it feels melancholy. I like farming, but I would still prefer to
continue at school and study. But it’s impossible.” Ten days
later, he notes that his family’s food stores are running low.
“We’re almost out of flour and bread, the barley hasn’t dried
yet, and we shan’t get any more rations, everything is being
requisitioned.” 

One hundred years later, a city – and a society – once unable to
educate or even feed its youth is now one of the world’s wealthiest
and fairest.

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