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Bringing together pandemic outbreak data and pandemic narratives in newspapers – a pilot study in the canton of Bern, 1918/1919

research areas

Digital Humanities
Text mining


2021 - 2021


The spread of a pandemic and the narratives about an ongoing pandemic are not independent from each other. In this pilot project, we are bringing together outbreak data and text information from newspapers quantitatively for the first time using the example of 1918.

Epidemics are a major challenge for public health, as illustrated by COVID-19. To meet the challenge, we need to better understand the outbreak patterns (pandemic spread) as well as people’s perception of a pandemic (pandemic narratives) and their behaviour. The experiences of the past are no longer present in the collective memory of the Swiss, as there has not been a major pandemic for 100 years. To recollect and quantify the past experience the knowledge has first to be digitised from archival sources.

In this subproject, we build on our collaborative work on the spread of the Spanish flu in the Canton of Bern in 1918. The aim of this pilot project is to digitise past pandemic experiences and bring them back to memory through digital methods and scientific communication channels. We will digitally reconstruct the spread of the pandemics 1918 in Bern and combine and contrast this spread with the digitally reconstructed narratives in the Bernese daily newspapers of the time. Our main hypothesis is that the spread of a pandemic and the narratives about an ongoing pandemic are not independent from each other.

Emergence of epidemics

The spread of the “Spanish flu” 1918 in Bern

We reconstructed the regional and temporal spread of the Influenza pandemic 1918 in the canton of Bern and published the results in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The “Pandemic Memory Gap” in Switzerland and the urgency for increased science communication.

An Op-Ed on how science communication should help to make forgotten experiences with pandemics in Switzerland more present again among the population and the authorities.

Blog entry about a GIVA MSc thesis project

In 2020, a MSc Student at GIVA has written a blog entry about the challenges of realizing a master thesis project about a historic pandemic during an ongoing pandemic.