Parallels between the 2020 and 1918 pandemics

Even the cat wore a mask!

In April I wrote a blog post called Our Ancestors and the 1918 Spanish Flu, not realizing there would be more. But…of course, there’s more! This is a marathon, not a sprint, and COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon.

Note: The 1918-1919 flu pandemic was often referred to as the “Spanish Flu” because of mistaken beliefs about its origin. I use that term, too, because accuracy and political correctness are not always helpful when searching the internet. (In fact, it may have started in Kansas: How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.)

Parallels abound between the COVID-19 era and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Wonder if we'll end up with our own Roaring Twenties? Click To Tweet

The parallels between now and then are striking, including a spike in cases during the fall. Nearly 200,000 Americans died from the “Spanish Flu” in October 1918 alone, making it the deadliest month in the country’s history. It was that same month that my maternal great-grandmother died, along with her 7-month-along unborn baby. RIP, Ethel Lee Robbins Lawrence – Gone but not forgotten, as her unusual hand-made headstone declares. (Click here to read about how my 14-year old grandmother was left to raise her three younger brothers and two-year-old baby sister almost single-handedly.)

Parallels abound

One needs only to Google phrases such as these to realize how similar our current situation is to theirs:


Masks 1918 Spanish flu (Think everyone back then agreed about masks? Ha!)

When Mask-Wearing Rules in the 1918 Pandemic Faced Resistance


Distancing 1918 Spanish flu (Guess who had fewer deaths? Those who distanced.)

5 lessons on social distancing from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic


Holidays 1918 Spanish flu (They had the same holidays, and the same problems with gatherings, that we do.)

How the Flu Pandemic Changed Halloween in 1918


Funerals 1918 Spanish flu (Zoom may be small comfort for us, but at least our apocalypse came with WiFi.)

How America Struggled to Bury the Dead During the 1918 Flu Pandemic


Travel 1918 Spanish flu (Soldier deployment accounted for much of the worldwide spread of the disease.)

What travel looked like after the last global pandemic


Vaccine 1918 Spanish flu (There not only wasn’t a vaccine, but the practice of modern medicine was still in its infancy. Did you know that it’s now believed that many of the October deaths were actually caused or hastened by aspirin overdose poisoning?)

Spanish Flu — Symptoms, How It Began & Ended


Politics 1918 Spanish flu (Yep, there were mid-term elections in 1918.)

How the US Pulled Off Midterm Elections Amid the 1918 Flu Pandemic


“Back to normal” 1918 Spanish flu (Some things were never the same, but some were better. Maybe we’ll have a parallel Roaring Twenties?)

When WWI, Pandemic and Slump Ended, Americans Sprung Into the Roaring Twenties


Additional Reading

I recommend John M. Barry’s book, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like back then.

Another parallel? I hope we don’t forget, but we might: The 1918 Flu Faded in Our Collective Memory: We Might ‘Forget’ the Coronavirus, Too

This article – Compare the flu pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19 with caution – the past is not a prediction – cautions against comparing too closely, and includes a typo at the end of the penultimate paragraph (should read “summer of 2021”). The reasons I’m including it here are: 1) I like the chart (“Three waves of death”), and 2) our pandemic may not be identical, but it’s similar enough that we will only be disappointed if we think it is ending any time soon.

Click image to enlarge it.

Survive & Thrive Resource Roundup

Early in the pandemic, I did little else but try to keep up with non-stop developments and post the best resources I could find for you (and for myself).

Things just kept changing, though, and it became too much for me to keep updating this page. I’m sure you understand, and can maybe even relate…?

The page is still worth checking out, though, and I continue to post helpful resources on social media when I find them.


Meanwhile, I do hope you are surviving, if not thriving in, this unbelievable year!

Please let me know how you are doing, and/or what aspect of the 1918 flu pandemic interests you, in the comments below!

Copyright 2020 by Hazel Thornton, Organized for Life.
I welcome social media links directly to this page!
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  1. Danielle Stevens on October 18, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    My grandmother (dad’s side) would have been 13 just before that October in 1918. My dad lived through the depression, want old enough to serve in WWII to his eternal disappointment. And survived the dust bowl years. My grandfather was one who served in WWI. My grandparents married at the end of that war. I find the history fascinating.

    • Hazel Thornton on October 19, 2020 at 7:02 am

      I think the fact that there was a similar pandemic 100 years ago probably means more to those who can place specific ancestors at the scene, don’t you?

  2. Janet Barclay on October 19, 2020 at 8:29 am

    Hazel, you are such an amazing researcher! I will definitely come back and explore some of those links when I have a bit more time.

    Naturally, I’ve become curious about the Spanish flu and my own ancestors. Maybe I’ll even discover something about that!

    • Hazel Thornton on October 19, 2020 at 8:48 am

      Thanks, Janet! I know sometimes I’m just begging for broken links, but I can’t help it! Glad it makes you curious about how your ancestors fit in!

  3. Seana Turner on October 19, 2020 at 8:38 am

    Oddly, last year I decided to pick a relatively unknown US Historical event to research as my New Year’s Resolution, and as it happened, I picked the 1918 flu. Crazy, right? I came across much of this same information, and it has almost creeped me out to have COVID hit this year.

    I do believe there will be lasting changes when this is over. I feel like I am seeing them already. It is amazing to me to see how some “staples” of life have changed since this set in, including my husband being around. He used to travel almost five days a week all over the globe. Now is home, exercising (lost almost 20 lbs), and creating a new life. I don’t think he’ll ever go back to the way things were.

    So here is to another “roaring 20s,” whatever that will mean!

    • Hazel Thornton on October 19, 2020 at 9:16 am

      Well, that certainly IS odd! Although, I did pick a book about race relations for book club this year well in advance of current events. I think we are all mourning the end (or at least a good long hiatus) of certain traditions, such as blowing the candles out on a birthday cake. But I also foresee many long-range benefits, such everyone getting comfortable meeting on Zoom-like platforms when appropriate…along with hopefully being able to gather when desired.

  4. Kathy Stone on October 19, 2020 at 10:12 am

    This is fascinating Hazel. I have been reading (social media links) about all the comparisons – thanks for collecting so many in one place. I want to have a look at all the photos from that time period to see what commonalities there are. As well, I believe some of my current clients ancestors died of the Spanish Flu – must verify, and include that in the story.

    • Hazel Thornton on October 19, 2020 at 10:49 am

      I think the more we can relate to previous world events (such as identifying ancestors who were affected), and the more we can ensure they are not forgotten (the events and the ancestors), the more we will be successful in fighting (or at least coping with) future similar events. Also, I think your clients will be fascinated with that additional detail.

  5. Linda Samuels on October 19, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    My great-grandfather died because of the 1918 flu epidemic, and my grandmother (mother’s side) almost died. If she had, I certainly wouldn’t be here today, nor would my mom, aunts, or siblings. When we think about all of the losses today because of COVID, we often think about the present and how it affects the families now that have lost their loved ones. But these losses also influence the future in so many ways.

    I like to think that we can learn from the past to make the present and future better. I hold hope for that to be true.

  6. Mary E. Rossow on October 19, 2020 at 1:08 pm

    Hazel… thank you for your wonderful research. I’m saving your post and will be reading all the individual articles as time allows.

    It definitely will be interesting to read about the prior pandemic while we are in the middle of our current pandemic.

    Who knew that we’d get to experience history so “up close and personal”???


    • Hazel Thornton on October 21, 2020 at 5:38 am

      Hi Mary, I hope you enjoy reading the articles I linked to!

  7. Julie Bestry on October 19, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    These parallels are fascinating, Hazel, and my favorite quote from your post is “”Zoom may be small comfort for us, but at least our apocalypse came with WiFi.” I wonder how many extroverts lost their freakin’ minds without technology to connect them to the people outside their households!

    • Hazel Thornton on October 21, 2020 at 5:36 am

      LOL, it makes me happy that you liked that line, Julie. And I do feel sorry for extraverts in both pandemics. It’s hard enough being an introvert during this one!

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