Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
“The plague has gripped Belen,” read the front page of the Belen News, “and it is believed there are three hundred persons now stricken with this dreadful disease.”
The day was Oct. 10, 1918, and that plague – better known worldwide as the Spanish flu, or the 1918 flu pandemic – had already started sweeping across New Mexico and other large swathes of the globe.
Hundreds of thousands of people had already died in the United States and New Mexicans began prepping for life under the cloud of a virus, a strikingly similar reality felt by nearly every person alive during the present-day COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost immediately, businesses began closing their doors to curb the spread of the Spanish flu. Some banks closed temporarily, schools were shut down for months and most public gatherings were all but prohibited.
Doctors at the time advocated for measures to quarantine those infected by the flu and for others to wear masks over their faces.
“It appears to me that there has been too much visiting from house to house,” said one doctor in the Santa Fe New Mexican. “The suggestion of wearing anti-flu masks is a wise one.”
In fact, several New Mexican cities instituted requirements for residents to wear masks, including in Taos. Those who violated the mandate faced fines or potential arrest.
Another article describes a Mountainair woman who had the flu and chose to break rules requiring her to quarantine at home. Once arrested, she was given a small fine.
Many of the restrictions imposed 100 years ago to reduce the spread of the flu resemble those imposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at various times after the arrival of COVID-19. They include restrictions on businesses and requirements to wear face coverings in public.
Those restrictions spawned waves of criticism from some residents upset by the new rules that place public health ahead of individual freedom. During a Nov. 7 rally that raised unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, protesters argued the restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were unnecessary and were hurting the state’s economy.
Many state legislators, business owners and residents have also pushed back on the need for restrictions, especially when the number of cases were relatively low.
As for New Mexicans in 1918, however, there was far less pushback on imposed restrictions, according to University of New Mexico-Valencia professor Richard Melzer.
“People generally respected those closings in schools and churches and stores,” Melzer said.
Articles from the period seem to support that conclusion.
Many expressed a desire for quarantine rules to end once the presence of the flu diminished. But Melzer noted in a 1982 academic article there were no public demonstrations against them.
“Many New Mexicans religiously followed these commandments, and no municipality was forced to resort to threats of fines and incarceration,” he wrote, noting other cities in America had such laws.
Newspapers also regularly advocated for people to follow simple hygiene regimens to contain the spread of new cases. One paper in Raton issued a “Ten Commandments for the Control of Influenza,” which included simple instructions, such as washing hands and avoiding large crowds.
As to why New Mexicans were more ready to follow restrictions a century ago, State Historian Rob Martinez said the timing of the Spanish flu played a significant role.
The Spanish flu struck New Mexico at the tail-end of World War I, a time when Americans were used to making personal sacrifices for the betterment of their country, he said.
“They were used to uniting in a war effort,” Martinez said.
Melzer agreed with that viewpoint, adding that wearing masks and quarantining the sick became methods by which people could fight the virus.
“This is just another way to help fight the enemy – a new enemy,” he said.
Lujan Grisham recently tightened restrictions on businesses and other public places in response to a surge in positive cases that has killed hundreds and put hospital beds near capacity.
But a recent New York Times article showed New Mexico’s early adoption of restrictions prevented an even more serious outbreak on the scale of such states as Nebraska and South Dakota.
The situation in 1918 wasn’t too dissimilar. President Woodrow Wilson, more focused on bringing an end to an international war, did not create a nationwide response plan to the flu, just as there remains no national plan in 2020.
Then-Gov. Washington Lindsey ordered closures of schools and churches, which remained in place for months. Along with the war, Martinez and Melzer said the brutally short nature of the Spanish flu – killing more than 5,000 mostly young New Mexicans in a couple of months – created more urgency than COVID-19, which has been much more elongated by comparison.
“They ran out of coffins, they couldn’t make them fast enough,” Melzer said. “They had mass graves – that would get your attention.”
Multiple companies have recently announced vaccines for COVID-19 they hope to release to the public in coming months. Until then, it’s unclear how long current restrictions will remain in effect.
Martinez, however, said lessons can be learned from New Mexicans’ response to a pandemic more than a century ago.
“With that generation, the government asked you to do something and you did it for the good of the country,” he said. “I think that’s something that’s lacking in the current society.”