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Reactions to a pandemic, then and now

Initially different, then similarly protective

Oh, those good old days. R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, wrote this week, “More than one hundred years ago, Americans were struck by a terrible flu pandemic that affected the entire world. Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.” 

Well, that was true when the Spanish Flu first hit in 1918. All those activities went on—and then, as dead bodies stacked up, the people who were still alive realized what a terrible mistake they had made. 

Soon, everything changed as the epidemic raged from east to west. In Boston, by Oct. 5 all public schools and other public buildings were closed. Boston’s mayor asked ministers and priests to turn away parishioners. Two weeks later the San Francisco Board of Health banned all public gatherings and schools, including church services. Schools reopened on Nov. 25. 

Reno writes that Americans in 1918 “did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play.”

The testimony of history is different. Dan Tonkel in Goldsboro, N.C.: “You couldn’t play with your playmates, your classmates, your neighbors, you had to stay home.” William Sardo in Washington, D.C.: “You had no community life, you had no school life, you had no church life.” In Monument and Ignacio, Colo., customers could not go into stores: They shouted orders through the doors, then waited outside for packages. In Modesto, Calif., the local newspaper published school lessons, and children mailed their completed assignments to teachers.

And the clash on football fields? The Notre Dame football team, led by a new head coach named Knute Rockne, canceled three games in October.