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Christmas this year is going to be… interesting. We know the risk of public gatherings, but 8 months at home have definitely tested our own strengths. What’s fascinating to realize is that this isn’t the first time we’ve had Christmas plans go awry because of a global pandemic. This isn’t our first time experiencing a Christmas quarantine, and it may not be our last.

The current restrictions around Thanksgiving and Christmas are eerily similar to the restrictions placed in 1918 to curb the spread of the Spanish Flu or the H1N1influenza. 1918 was a tough year, because of the war and the pandemic. It was slightly easier to impose restrictions because it was seen as patriotic – people were helping the soldiers, in their own way.

In the earlier months, people were more willing to quarantine because it was tied to the war effort. It was a way for citizens to show their support to the troops. However, once the armistice was called on November 11, it became much more difficult to control the crowds. People rushed to the streets to celebrate. Suddenly, the narrative of ‘patriotism’ didn’t apply. We’ve seen firsthand accounts of how a pandemic has failed to unify the people; it wasn’t as successful then, either. 

What made matters worse was that the celebrations were premature – restrictions were lifted in certain counties in Wisconsin on December 20, when it seemed like influenza cases were coming down. However, cases began to rise after the New Year, proving that the lockdown did have a dampening effect, but the epidemic was not over yet. Cases climbed up, and many died, as people returned to normal social habits. 

In other parts of the country, trends seemed similar to what we see today – for example, cases rose after Thanksgiving in Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle, among other places. Health officials in Nebraska announced a quarantine on Christmas Eve, and over a thousand homes in Omaha were ‘placarded’- their occupants were not allowed to leave the house for at least 4 days after the fever subsided. Christmas parties and assemblies were canceled, yet America still entered the third wave of H1N1 influenza by January, killing thousands more over the winter and the spring.

In Scotland, cases seemed to fall around mid-December in some places. This lead to parts of the country opening up in time for Christmas, removing the need for a ‘Christmas quarantine’. Churches and shops welcomed those looking to celebrate the end of the war and what seemed like the end of the pandemic as well. It was difficult to continue quarantining, partially because people wished to celebrate the end of the war. However, we know from history that loosening restrictions prematurely didn’t end well. 

H1N1 influenza took over 40 million lives worldwide by the time it subsided in 1919. A little over 100 years later, COVID-19 has taken a million lives so far, but we’re far from the finish line. 

We’ve seen this scenario play out before. This time, we’re not seeing a drop in numbers, but cases consistently climbing every day. Social isolation, particularly during the holidays, is extremely difficult. However, it’s necessary. These times are extraordinary, but we have seen them before. We have documentation of Christmas time during the last pandemic, and it did not end well.

We need to learn from history, take stock of what we know, and stay home. COVID-19 will force us all to accept some new holiday traditions, but it’s one that is temporary. It’s never too late to stay at home, stop the spread, and flatten the curve. We have first-hand accounts of the holidays acting as superspreader events. Let’s not make the same mistake again. 

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  • Natalia Ahmed

    Natalia Nazeem Ahmed is a budding writer and editor with a BA from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, India, with a major in English Literature and a double minor in Philosophy and Film Studies. An avid reader, her goal is to build a career out of her fiction and non-fiction writing. In her spare time, she loves to knit for her loved ones.