Kristy Money: Learn the lessons of the 1918 pandemic in Utah

(U.S. National Library of Medicine via The New York Times) In a photo provided by U.S. National Library of Medicine, misinformation in newspapers and government censors helped the flu spread in 1918. The “Spanish flu” pandemic, the subject of a new, ongoing exhibit at the Mütter Museum, killed tens of millions of people worldwide.

Imagine that it’s October 1918. Our ancestors watched as Utah’s Public Health Officer issued orders to cancel all public gatherings after the first few Spanish flu cases began to dot Salt Lake City’s landscape. Church meetings, celebrations, theater shows, state functions, huge family dinners, all come to a grinding halt.

Or not.

Some aspects of 1918’s version of social distancing succeeded.,The General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was cancelled, saving thousands of lives, and all public places were closed for months. However, naysayers abounded. Salt Lake Health Director Samuel Paul said the closures of public places and events was, “absolutely ridiculous and absurd. Such an action can be merely due to hysteria.”

As someone who took postdoctoral coursework at the University of Massachusetts in public health, focusing on community health education, I would encourage Utahns to learn from our forefathers and foremothers’ history of problematic responses to pandemics, especially after reading an email yesterday from a Utah leader inviting sacrament/worship in their home stake-wide and promising protection.

In 1918, many Utahns also didn't heed official state warnings to socially distance to avoid the Spanish flu. Back then, most of the state looked more like Utah’s current smaller towns, with people living in tight-knit family and community groups. They simply didn't stop getting together, whether it was for family dinners or larger gatherings.

Traditional LDS rituals that involved groups, like the ritual laying on of hands and blessing of the sacrament, continued. Through breathing the same air and touching and taking the same symbols of the sacrament from shared plates and cups, the virus had ample opportunity to spread.

By the time the Spanish flu ran its course, Utah set the third highest death rate record in the United States, behind only Philadelphia and Colorado, beating the high rate of deaths per capita even in tight urban spaces like New York City. Four percent of those Utahns who were infected died.

Scientists say COVID-19 is a deadlier strain of flu than the 1918 version, killing anywhere from 4% to 10% of confirmed cases, and that if precautions aren’t taken 50-70% of the population will be infected.

For comparison, Italy has a death rate of 10% of confirmed cases of COVID-19. While Italy’s population is older than Utah’s, rates of diabetes and heart conditions in Utah (and the U.S.) are nearly double that of Italians, which may help explain why more young people are among the dying here than there.

Smartphone data studies say since the public was warned about coronavirus, out-of-home movement has not decreased much in many of our Utah communities. In Utah County, it is only down 15%.

I understand our yearning to connect with one another. It’s ingrained in our DNA as humans and our specific cultural history as Utahns. It’s a beautiful impulse. Our ancestors relied on their strong relationships to survive persecution, cross-country treks, bitter winters, famine, and the loneliness of isolation in far-flung settlements. We endured those things, and we will survive COVID-19.

But to save our posterity, please follow the social distancing guidelines coming from public health officials, so we don’t repeat Utah’s deadly history in the last world pandemic.

Bad things don’t only happen to other people who don’t live or worship like us. Our ancestors continued group rituals to show their continued exercise of faith, and in such gatherings unfortunately facilitated a much higher death toll.

And thank heaven for the internet so we can check in with friends and loved ones, see their faces and participate in healthy community group initiatives remotely from the comfort of our couches, without spreading the virus.

We've been blessed with healthy minds to help us use our agency wisely, to seek out the best books (including, say, the most recent CDC recommendations), and to use gifts like our smartphones to check in with friends and loved ones when we can’t do so in person.

I’m so proud of my pioneer heritage, and I believe our ancestors would want us to hearken to their past by learning from it: staying home, minimizing shopping to essentials, physically distancing from those who don’t live in the same home, and keeping our faith in a brighter day when we once again can gather together.

Kristy Money

Kristy Money, Ph.D., Provo, is a psychologist and founder of the Healthy Minds and Journeys Foundation.