I remember the day, in late March 2020, when I first worried that we might not be able to publish a newspaper, for what would have been only the second time in the Guardian’s history. I had driven into the office – no one was taking the train any more. Classed as an essential worker, I was permitted to travel, but the streets were utterly silent, with every school, cafe and shop closed.
I sat down with colleagues, spaced apart by yellow tape, to work out whether we could gather enough people to produce a print edition. We could publish the digital Guardian from anywhere, but to publish the newspaper, we needed a small number of people in the office. A handful of colleagues volunteered, but I wondered how we would be able to keep everything going. People were anxious for their families and friends and themselves – and frightened, too, for what kind of world we were entering, and what we would be left with.
So, as the editor-in-chief, I did what I have often done in difficult times, and looked to the history of the Guardian. How did they get the paper out during the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 228,000 people in Britain and more than 50 million worldwide? What was it like for journalists on the Manchester Guardian? Did many staff fall ill or even die from the virus that the paper itself warned was “very fatal”?
The second wave of the flu pandemic, in autumn 1918, hit Manchester hard: all schools were closed, mortuaries were full and doctors announced they could not attend to everyone. The lives of our journalists were surely affected – unusually, the 1918 flu was more deadly for people between the ages of 20 and 40. And yet there is nothing in the history books about the pandemic’s impact on the Guardian as an institution or the individuals who made it. Not a word.
This absence does not surprise Laura Spinney, whose brilliant 2017 book about the 1918 pandemic, Pale Rider, was an essential text in the early months of 2020 as we watched our world transformed by a new coronavirus. She recalls that when she started her research, there were more than 80,000 books about the first world war, but only around 400 about the 1918 flu, which took more lives than the war. “People didn’t know how to think about it,” Spinney writes. “They still don’t.”
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