Who Suffered More? Comparing the Effects of the 1918 Spanish Flu to the COVID-19 Pandemic

BYU Students were required to wear hygienic masks as they gathered in assembly in College Hall to protect against the Spanish Flu, ca. 1918. Photo courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections, UAP 2 F-092]

Looking back over 100 years ago, BYU students faced many of the same challenges you are facing today. Closed campus, social distancing, canceled events, although these times seem unprecedented, this isn’t the first time BYU students have suffered the effects of a worldwide pandemic.

BYU History Department Chair, Brian Cannon compared the effects of the 1918 Flu pandemic to the current COVID-19 pandemic on today’s BYU students. He said, “I think in terms of students being cut-off from one another the potential for isolation was greater in 1918.”

When campus closed its doors in the middle of the fall semester in 1918 to comply with state health mandates and to stop the spreading of the Spanish Flu, classes abruptly stopped.

The university did not open its doors again until after winter break in January of 1919. Upon returning, the students were forced to wear masks on the street and in public buildings. There was even a student death because of the flu during the pandemic; Gerald Beck was a senior and passed away before he could graduate that spring.

The effects of the 1918 pandemic were worse in some respects, and better in others when compared to today’s challenges. Cannon explained, “I think that the effects of the 1918 flu pandemic were more severe in the sense that there were deaths in the student body.”

In 1918, little was known about the flu virus. Small preventive measures were taken at BYU to stop the spread which included, girls being asked to “dress more warmly that windows might be thrown wide open, insuring full and thorough ventilation of all rooms.” (White and Blue, October 16, 1918).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that one-third of the world’s population became infected with the flu virus. BYU students in 1918 not only faced a great risk of death but they were also instantly cut-off from each other and classes without access to virtual communication. Students’ only form of instant communication was telephones, “Although they existed very few people had them” said Cannon.

On March 12, 2020, when BYU announced the closing of campus for classes there were resources available to continue online instruction, “It’s allowed classed to continue, not under optimal conditions but still it allows us to engage in the dissemination of information” said Cannon. Online platforms like Zoom allow students to continue to engage and interact with teachers and classmates.

However, the constant access to information can be a disadvantage for BYU students of today. Cannon said, “We’re so connected to what’s going on across the world that it can heighten our sense of distress. 100 years ago, if you left Provo, and went home to the farm, you didn’t have instant knowledge of what was going on as a pandemic was unfolding.” The access to news and systems tracking every new virus case causes us to “feel the effect of people suffering across the nation and world in real-time” said Cannon.

Comparing the effects of both pandemics there are great risks for students’ mental and physical health. Pandemics are never easy, but BYU students can focus on the fact that classes have been able to continue and interactions with one another are only a few clicks away. Students can find peace in the fact that our nation has overcome pandemics in the past, and with increased knowledge and technology our nation and university will do it again.

Want to learn more about the worldwide pandemic of 1918? Check out “Lessons from 1918” By Michael R. Walker