The 1918 pandemic ravaged the remote city of stersund. But its legacy is a city and country well-equipped to deal with 21 st century challenges
On 15 September 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 influenza 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 influenza despite probably originating in America, 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 moniker” capital of the Spanish influenza “.
” Looking back through contemporaneous accounts was quite creepies ,” says Jim Hedlund at the city’s state repository.” 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 connects, several army regiments stationed in close quarters and a malnourished population living in cramped accommodation. As neutral Sweden maintained 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 farther afield came for the fresh mountain air and restorative waters- as well as the excellent angling 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 people 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 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 ).