“Gone but not forgotten”, can we read on the grave of Carl Axel Carlson, who died in 1918 of the Spanish flu.

It was his body, repatriated from the east coast of the United States, that had spread the deadly virus in the region of Bisbee, at the time a prosperous mining town in Arizona.

A century later, the town is now trembling in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, which threatens its population of retirees and hippies as well as its tourism industry.

The Spanish flu “came by train” with Carl Carlson, local historian Mike Anderson told AFP.

The soldier had been sent back to Bisbee to be buried there and “two or three days later, he was already killing people”, continues Mike Anderson, pointing to other graves dated to 1918 located around his own.

In total, the flu virus is estimated to have claimed 180 lives in Bisbee, which had a population of over 25,000 in 1910, according to the city’s website.

Today, the mining manna (copper, silver, gold) of the turn of the century is only a distant memory for the city, nestled in the mountains near the Mexican border.

It now has a population of 5,200 people living mainly from tourism, visitors being attracted by its picturesque period buildings in red bricks and wood.

But the economy has been paralyzed for months by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already infected 57 people and left one dead, in an elderly and therefore vulnerable population.

And the city is now faced with a dilemma: ordering containment to curb the spread of this new virus and protect its inhabitants, or continue to welcome tourists to avoid bankruptcy.

The first cases of coronavirus were reported shortly after the arrival in numbers of tourists on the occasion of a long bank holiday weekend at the end of May, explains the mayor, David Smith.

“The bars were full. Some people don’t care, ”he says.

– Kissing prohibited –

In newspaper archives, Mike Anderson was able to realize that in 1918, Bisbee had declared containment and even banned hugs in an attempt to stop the spread of the Spanish flu, which killed at least 50 million people in the country. world.

The mines have never closed. World War I had boosted demand and tripled copper prices, but many paid for the greed with their lives.

“The flu did not go into detail, it killed teachers, doctors, minors,” notes Mike Anderson.

The arrival of the Covid-19 in town reminded Peter Bach, a retired miner, of a story his grandmother told him. The Spanish flu killed her only one-year-old baby and nearly took her husband. When the latter regained his strength, “he built a small coffin and buried his son in the garden,” says Bach.

Peter Bach now works as a guide in a copper mine, transformed into a tourist attraction and which now only welcomes small groups of visitors in its wagons due to the coronavirus epidemic.

The bars of the city have been closed as a precaution and some shops are now only available by appointment.

This did not prevent many tourists last weekend from coming to Bisbee from Tucson or Phoenix, large cities in Arizona particularly affected by Covid-19.

A sign of the times, with these visitors, the mask is now often part of the outfit, just like boots and cowboy hats, very popular accessories in the region.

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