Learning from the past: Spanish flu sheds light on COVID-19 response

A new revelation more than a century in the making could point the way forward as California seeks a post-COVID-19 return to normal.
Deep in the San Jose State University archives, lessons on disease and death, and the impact of a pandemic on early 20th-century culture are all contained in a yearbook published 101 years ago.
“There are a few mentions in the yearbook where people will say, 'Oh in spite of having to be in masks, we still held this event,'” said Carli Lowe, archivist for San Jose State University.
She points out the 1919 school yearbook, “LaTorre,” which contains images and memoirs of students directly after the Spanish Influenza global pandemic. Back then, the university was called the San Jose State Normal School, a teacher’s college. In the spring of 1918, diary passages reveal students and nurses made masks and practiced social distancing to "stop the spread of this disease.”
“I definitely think that there are similarities in reactions between Spanish Influenza and the coronavirus. There’s a lot of things that I can relate to personally. The experience of making your own masks,” said Lowe. Added SUNY Stony Brook history professor Dr. Nancy Tomes, “The parallels between then and now are really uncanny.”
After an initial introduction in the spring, Dr. Tomes said the Spanish Influenza faded with little fanfare. But the drawdown of World War I and the return of troops in the fall sparked a resurgence. First on the east coast then the pandemic swept west by train and boat, killing 675,000 Americans, out of a population of 103 million people.
“It was such a disaster, that all the other cities in the United States, could see it coming. And they start to move to social distancing,” said Tomes.
The school closed for a month but reopened when it seemed the worst had passed.
"They talk about, I believe it was in October, the campus completely shut down. And they were celebrating an early vacation, said Lowe. "And then the campus reopened in November and had to shutdown in December because cases started to rise again."
It would be well into 1919 before life began to return to normal. The school reopened in phases, with some courses being canceled. Lowe believes the depths of fear, uncertainty, and recovery a century ago can be a roadmap for our times, and a beacon for generations to come..
“I’m hoping that people will record their personal experiences now so that people in the future can learn from our documenting what we’re experiencing these days,” she said.