People have drawn many comparisons between the current coronavirus outbreak and the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, which killed hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Peter Drummey from the Massachusetts Historical Society to learn more about the similarities and differences between these two pandemics here in Massachusetts. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: It's not a good thing to be compared to 1918, is it?
Peter Drummey: No, I think that we've lost a sense of the catastrophic nature of the influenza epidemic in 1918. Massachusetts [was] the first place, really, to have a severe outbreak in 1918 throughout the United States and then essentially throughout the world. So the scale of this is really different, at least as we understand it, up to date. A lot of the attempts to deal with it are surprisingly familiar to us. They didn't say social distancing, but that idea of quarantine [and] closing places where the public congregates [is] very similar today, producing masks and then distributing them. In any photograph you see from 1918, that's what strikes you is the number of masked people. And also on the other side of that, there are things that really are quite different. Something like an election taking place in the midst of this.
Mathieu: Well, I'd like to hear about that because there are a lot of questions right now about how we vote in the remaining primaries and how we prepare for a national election. Of course, this is different in a presidential year, but still, when you're dealing with masses of people, and in 1918 without the internet and some of the other alternatives we now have, how did it [work]?
Drummey: Well, in 1918, because [of concern for] providing the ability of soldiers away from home to be able to vote, Massachusetts had just amended its constitution in 1917 to allow for what they called absent voting. So that was brand new as of the election in 1918. Not many people voted by absentee ballot, as we would describe it today — just a small number. But it had just come into existence. So essentially everything about the vote here in Massachusetts in 1918 is, people voting traditionally at public places. It depresses the number of voters. The vote from 1916 has been a national presidential election and an important election here in Massachusetts and local races. The number of votes [in 1918] goes down about 20 percent. There is a big turnout, but not the scale of turnout in the previous election.
Mathieu: Well, let me ask you then, did the election worsen the spread?
Drummey: It probably did. But there are some other things going on that probably have more of an influence. Probably the one that causes the most problems for people trying to quarantine [was] a bond drive. These are called liberty loans. Much of the cost of the First World War was paid for by selling patriotic bonds to the public. So a bond drive involved parades, public meetings and all the things you wouldn't want people doing during an epidemic. It's also the case that while church services, schools, public theater and movie theaters — which had come in by that time — has stopped much of the work, the everyday work goes on, there is an enormous amount of essential war work going on. So that plays a role in the spread. But one thing is all of these quarantines and closures are lifted after about a month after the rate of infection and the number of deaths starts going down. They immediately sort of snap back to business as usual. And just as we're facing that right now, [we] have to look back upon it. So I'm not saying that the public voting didn't play a part in the epidemic. It is the case that there were a whole range of things making it very difficult to control this.
Mathieu: Peter, we've had sort of an ideological push and pull about reopening cities and states about what's constitutional. There was an anti-mask movement, not unlike some of the protests we've seen now, in 1918 as well.
Drummey: Yes, not so much here, because I think masking here was seen as sort of an innovation. I think there's resistance along health lines, but back then there's resistance to having people conceal themselves or being in disguise. That has to do with — not here necessarily — but certainly things like white supremacist organizations. The Ku Klux Klan is one that comes immediately to mind. Part of that anti-masking sensibility is a carryover for other reasons people were against that. The resistance to quarantine perhaps is not so pronounced then, because the quarantine period — just a few weeks — was so much briefer in most places than it is now. It also was a lot less systematic than this now. But one thing to remember is how much younger the population was then. The median age in 1918 is about 25. It's now about 40 here in Massachusetts. So right there you see how this young population is going to push up against boundaries upon their activity.