Joking in the Time of Pandemic: The 1889–92 Flu and 2020 COVID-19

As we see with COVID-19, the darkest periods in history expose the best — and worst — of humanity. Some people become virulently racist. Others spend hours caring for the most afflicted. Still more look for safe outlets to vent their fear and anger, often fleeing to laughter to do so. As a number of scholars have noted, humor alleviates tensions around uncertain situations while creating a common language for people to use.1 To think a little more deeply about satire and pandemics, we can look to nineteenth-century British satirical periodicals and twenty-first century international social media.

In December 1889, a new influenza epidemic moved from Russia into Europe.2 By February 1890, the Russian flu, named after its origin, had become a pandemic, triggering global panic as thousands succumbed to the disease. It reemerged in Europe in summer 1891 and again in winter 1891-92. Although many historians, journalists, and medical workers have considered COVID-19’s resonances with the 1918 flu pandemic, I find the 1889-92 flu another useful, though often forgotten comparison for popular culture. In both COVID-19 and Russian flu, the public used satire to relieve fears over highly-communicative pandemic diseases.3 The media’s wide public reach was particularly useful in making jokes available and relatable to local, national, and sometimes international audiences.

Even after Robert Koch discovered the microscopic bacillus in the 1880s, the British public continued associating disease with the unknown. Perhaps that’s not surprising. Today, people still often talk about medicine and science through symbols, symptoms, and other rhetorical devices instead of picturing the physical germ. The public’s humor reflected the ambiguity around both diseases. How do we know this disease exists? And if it does, what do we do about it?

Victorian humor reacted to the situation by posing influenza as a set of specific symptoms. In February 1890, satirical periodical Fun published a poem called “Victims,” visualizing flu through sneezing, depression, and bronchial distress:

We have got the Russian “grippe,”
If you please,
And our soup we cannot sip,
When we sneeze;
Oh, it makes us all feel blue,
And we raise a hullabaloo,
As we snort with loud “atchoo”
As we wheeze.4

During Russian flu’s third emergence in 1892, Punch magazine similarly used poetry to symbolize flu through symptoms:

Oh! my head and legs are aching!
Now I’m freezing! Now I’m baking!
Clockwork in my cerebellum!
Oh! all over me I’m sore.
In my bed I’m writhing, tossing,
Yet I’m in a steamer, crossing,
While Kiralfy’s Venice bossing,
I’m ‘against’ and Russell ‘for’
In a case about the Echo
Somewhere out at Singapore!
It’s delirium!!! Nothing more.

In each case, influenza appears through symptoms instead of as a physical germ. Sneezing, fevers, and mental health problems craft an influenzal being out of satirical wit. Instead of fearing these symptoms, humor tempers them. These symptoms, and flu by extension, become funny objects. Laughter in this way reduced the panic around the flu and helped the public cope with an otherwise hidden disease.

A coronavirus meme featuring Chuck Norris.

Today, we have found COVID-19’s germ, but, like with Russian flu, we see it through the lens of fear. Where influenza primarily became symptoms, COVID-19 is an enemy stalking one’s fortress. By turning coronavirus into a manageable entity, twenty-first century audiences feel a sense of control over a seemingly chaotic situation. An airplane pilot dropkicks rumors and punches symptoms. Washing hands raw reveals hidden school notes from the 1990s. Even Chuck Norris makes a comeback. Akin to Russian flu satire, COVID-19 memes thus voice and subsequently relieve people’s anxieties.

Victorian and twenty-first century publics laughed as much at their cultures’ and societies’ reactions to pandemics as at the pandemics themselves. Since diseases often pass from one person to another, epidemics cause people to question their neighbors’ choices. Humor here acts as a safety valve, allowing people to vent their frustration through a socially-acceptable means.

One major way of controlling Russian flu’s spread was self-quarantine. As with today, nineteenth-century doctors asked flu patients to keep themselves from society. “Every patient who is attacked by influenza ought certainly to keep within doors,” asserted one English physician.5 Voluntary quarantine performed double-duty, removing the sick patient from public spaces and allowing him or her to recover in peace. COVID-19 patients are asked to perform a similar task in self-isolating for at least two weeks, though this intent is primarily to contain the disease’s spread.

The lady in the foreground is free to “dadse” during the Russian flu epidemic. (Courtesy “Idfluenzal Persodages,” Funny Folks, December 28, 1889.)

Quarantine can be just as frightening as the disease itself, making it a target for humorous relief. One such cartoon from Funny Folks occurred early in the epidemic. The illustration depicts an aristocratic lady with influenza soliciting a dance from one of two healthy gentlemen standing in front of her. The lady continually sneezes as she tries to explain how she had not “probised Captaid Bodtgobery” the next “dadse,” and so she was free to “dadse” with someone else.6 This lady evokes the distress of British socialites as they tried to traverse society during Russian flu. The scene’s backdrop adds to this distress. Everyone stands around the ballroom with red noses, and many hold handkerchiefs near their faces in anticipation of the next sneeze, showing how these socialites chose class duties over convalescence and containment.

On a different note, “Diary of a Jolly Party,” published in Punch in January 1890, addressed quarantine in confined spaces, away from the rest of society. The lady writing the diary entries discusses a week spent at a friend’s house. Every morning, someone new has caught influenza. She at first denies influenza’s existence, even as each friend or house servant fell ill. It is only when she falls ill herself, and the doctor visits, that she believes influenza exists:

“You don’t mean to say that it’s—” “Influenza?” he asks. I nod. Yes, that is exactly what it is, he tells me, and no one will be able to leave for the next ten days!! How pleasant for our hosts!! I did not believe in Influenza. I do now.7

In one breath, the doctor diagnoses the diarist with influenza and stipulates a strict quarantine period. The joke works on multiple levels. The diarist only recognizes influenza for its existence when she catches it, critiquing how the upper classes treated the pandemic with deliberate blindness to continue social duties. And she must stay at her friend’s house, who already has several quarantined persons housed in rooms around the place. Because the diarist failed to adhere to public warnings about Russian flu, she—and her hosts—now had to suffer the consequences of it.

COVID-19’s jokes differ only slightly from Russian flu—they introduce a new concept, social distancing, for both healthy and sick bodies. In 1889, social distancing as a phrase did not exist. People understood that they needed to stay indoors and avoid large gatherings when going outside, just as we do today, but few gave a clear name to this concept apart from quarantine. Satire is reworking an old concept with a new name. A tweet from March 17, 2020 pictured a man dressed for work and sitting at a table in the middle of an empty field, captioned: “Remote working and maintaining social distance should not be used to lower one’s usual standards.” Quarantine, too, is still used in today’s satire, often adjacent to social distancing. Websites like Lit Hub have rewritten famous quotes to reflect social distancing and self-quarantine at an intersection of humor, epidemic disease, and intellectualism. For instance, Jane Eyre’s first line now reads, “There was every possibility of taking a walk that day, as long as we kept six feet between us and the others on the path.”8 While some people use these jokes to argue against COVID-19’s virulence, those who practice social distancing can participate in the humorous conversation about it. Only until you self-isolate or social distance from other people can you truly understand the jokes’ intent.

Thanks to the Internet, people are more connected than they were in the nineteenth century, providing the self-quarantined with at least virtual human contact. Yet despite the different media used to transmit jokes in these two eras, the intent behind them remains largely the same. Limiting one’s human contact is both necessary and difficult during a pandemic, but it needn’t be devoid of good humor. The advantage of satire in popular media lies in its ability to circulate privately and publicly, allowing people even in the most isolated settings to engage with the wider world if they can afford to do so.

While some people may find joking about pandemics tactless behavior, it serves a purpose. Humor gives the public a way to share and diminish their anxieties, giving individuals a sense of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Above all, humor informs and protects, giving readers valuable information on diagnosis and prophylaxis as they chuckle.9

So wash your hands, practice social distancing, and heartily laugh every so often.

Notes

  1. Hannah Brayford, “Punch’s Use of Graphic Satire for Middle Class Engagement, 1889-1914,” Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine 38, nos. 1-2 (2015): 79-84; Lucy Delap, “Kitchen-Sink Laughter: Domestic Service Humor in Twentieth-Century Britain,” Journal of British History 49, no. 3 (2010): 623-654; Henry Miller, “The Problem with Punch,Historical Research 82, no. 216 (2009): 285-302. Return to text.
  2. “The Influenza Epidemic,” Birmingham Daily Post, Birmingham, England, December 14, 1889. Return to text.
  3. Although the 1918 flu led to satirical humor, it focused more on military rather than civilian life, unlike COVID-19 and the Russian flu. Return to text.
  4. “Victims,” Fun (February 1, 1890). Return to text.
  5. Isaac Thompson, “Epidemic Influenza: With Special Reference to the Epidemic of 1889-1892” (University of Edinburgh M.D. Thesis 1892), 154. Return to text.
  6. “Idfluenzal Persodages,” Funny Folks, December 28, 1889. Return to text.
  7. “Diary of a Jolly Party,” Punch, January 25, 1890. Return to text.
  8. The original line reads, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Return to text.
  9. I must disappoint readers, however, by noting that you cannot scare the virus into quarantine. That skill belongs to Chuck Norris alone. Return to text.

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