The first two garments in this collection were displayed in the Keene ArtWalk, 2020.
Like many people during the early COVID-19 pandemic, I fond myself regularly checking numbers–how many cases in my state, in my country, in the world. How many deaths. I knew these numbers only reflect guess-work, and can be warped by accident or on purpose, but there is still something reassuring in the illusion that we know what is going on. It is easy to forget that these numbers represent real people.
I started to look over history and the numbers of past pandemics to try to understand the New Normal, and found that it is, in fact, very normal. As a species, we have survived many pandemics, and will continue to do so again and again. And one of our greatest strengths as humans is our ability to be empathic with others, and take steps to protect the vulnerable in our communities. It is this trait, as much as any gained immunity, that helps us survive these difficult moments in history.
These garments are the first pieces I have made to explore this theme. They are each rooted in a major influenza pandemic which took place in the last 100 years. I have used clothing as the base of these pieces, making it impossible to look away from the human element of these events, and imposed some of the numbers upon them.
Asian Flu (H2N2)
Originating from a sickness found in birds, this illness was first documented having spread to human beings in Singapore in February 1957. Like any widespread sickness, it is impossible to accurately count the number of victims, but most sources agree Asian Flu caused between one and two million deaths, with 1.1 million the most common estimate offered. The main sufferers were children, and adults in close contact with children, particularly pregnant women. The elderly also had many losses, but those who were old enough to have survived the flu of 1889-90 showed resistance. Asian Flu arrived much later in the US than in Europe and Asia, and a vaccination was developed before it peaked.
. The quote on the purse is from J. Corbett McDonald, of the Public Health Laboratory Service (UK), and is in full as follows:
‘Although we have had 30 years to prepare for what should be done in the event of an influenza pandemic, I think we have all been rushing around trying to improvise investigations with insufficient time to do it properly. We can only hope that people will have taken advantage of their opportunities and at the end it may be possible to construct an adequate explanation of what happened.’1
The 30 years refers to the time elapsed since the last major pandemic, the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 million people across the globe.
Hong Kong Flu (H3N2)
First reported in 1968, the Hong Kong flu came in several waves over five years, the second being the most deadly. Sources agree it killed at least a million people, though some estimate as many as 4 million. Infants and the elderly were the highest casualties. People who had been exposed to the Asian flu a decade before showed resistance. Efforts to slow the spread were few, even in first world countries. In the days before the internet, it was difficult to understand in the moment how widespread and deadly this virus was.
Like Asian Flu, the Hong Kong Flu was derived from an avian flu. It has a tendency to mutate, and would eventually develop into swine flu. A vaccination was created in 1969, but H3N2 had several smaller outbreaks in 1970 and 1972. The virus continues to circulate to this day.