Lessons from polio and the Spanish flu

Kids are resilient, society has short memories, and other past pandemic learnings from medical and cultural anthropologist Martha Lincoln.
November 4, 2020

“Unprecedented.” It’s a simple word to describe what has been a very (very!) complicated 2020. In a good year, most kids content takes 18 months to get to screen. That means creators today are looking at a 2022 release for a recently greenlit series. But how does one plan for two years down the line when the present is unprecedented?

From the “silent generation” influenced by a pair of world wars, to a prosperous “baby boom” that spoke of nothing but promise and potential, to the launch of the internet and all that entailed—few global events have the power to collectively shape a generation. But for today’s Gen Alphas and Gen Zs, COVID-19 is likely to be one of those defining experiences.

So how can the industry plan for a post-pandemic future? To start, you have to talk to your audience today. Experts from Disney, MarketCast Kids and Dubit went right to the source, checking in with families about how their lives have changed in order to discern which new trends and habits are likely to have staying power. There’s still time to sign up for our Kids of 2022 virtual keynote series for even more future-focused audience intel.

Kidscreen: When we think of past pandemics, is there an overarching shift in social dynamics they all share?

Martha Lincoln: People tend to forget them. There is an interesting tendency for us to recover from a pandemic and then to have it fall out of our cultural consciousness, which is good news and bad news. It speaks to the resilience of people—even for kids, who have an early and formative experience of living through something confusing.

The bad news is forgetting about pandemics raises questions about preparedness. There had been plenty of signs that, at some point, we would be experiencing something like this. And maybe, in part because we haven’t culturally remembered what it’s like to experience [a pandemic], many people who should have taken this seriously did not.

My dad, who was a member of the polio-affected generation—a kid in the 1950s—strongly remembers what it was like not to be able to go swimming, and to have to get these very painful (and not very effective) injections that were supposed to boost immunity. And he remembers how terrified his family was of the possibility that one of the kids would get polio. But it feels like a long time ago, and times have changed. [When COVID-19 hit], he was just as surprised as everybody else.

Kidscreen: How have past pandemics like the Spanish flu changed the lives of kids, and what lessons can we take from them?

Lincoln: Kids would have experienced the Spanish flu in parallel with World War One. That’s a generation that would have experienced a lot of dislocation and trauma. Some people speculate that the Spanish flu was forgotten because it was competing against the war— those two events register together as one big trauma.

I think [COVID-19] is going to be profoundly significant for anyone under the age of 20. The interruption of school and social relationships, and the changes to their family lives—particularly if they have parents who lost jobs or income—is a lot of disruption. Some kids are going to be better protected, but some will be really strongly affected.

Given the times we’re living through, it will be important for families to remember [that] kids are competent caregivers and can participate in the process of keeping their families safe. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and some of that is related to health and how to stay healthy. But kids are really good at remembering things like, “This is why and how we wash our hands,” “This is how close we can be to other people” and “This is how we can make sure our family stays OK.”

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

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