New Mexico historian says COVID reaction to masks isn’t so different from 1918 influenza

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (KRQE) – As mask mandates continue across New Mexico, the state’s historian says our opinions on masks aren’t all that different from those who wore them a hundred years ago. Flash back to New Mexico a century ago and you find some similarities like soldiers off at war and a global pandemic.

“It hit everywhere really hard, including New Mexico,” said Robert Martinez, State Historian of New Mexico. “We have to remember, this was 1918, there was a World War going on, so there was a lot of preparation, in a way, that people were used to sacrificing, they were used to taking mandates from the federal government and state governments to come together during a war effort.”

Martinez says New Mexico was hit hard by the Spanish Flu, killing more than 1,500 people in 1918. However, he says seeing how the state handled it back then isn’t too far off with how the state is tackling COVID-19 now.

“If you look back at the newspaper ads and articles of the times, it’s very similar to what we see happening here. There’s all kinds of interesting mandates and orders and advice,” said Martinez. “Cover your mouth if you’re going to cough or sneeze, stay indoors as much as possible, avoid crowds and wear a mask. That was part of what people had to do.”

As for how New Mexicans 102 years ago took to wearing masks, Martinez says history shows they had mixed feelings, much like today. While we can’t look back at early 20th century social media posts or TV, he says laws made around the time of the Spanish Flu are a big clue into how things worked.

“They were dealing with just as much trauma and difficulty as we are now. They didn’t have Facebook or television news. They had other ways of communicating, of course, newspapers seemed to be the main way of communicating these ideas of what we were supposed to do to fight the Spanish Flu,” said Martinez. “We can learn what people were doing by studying laws that said don’t do this, or don’t do that. In Taos, New Mexico, in particular, there were very strict rules. You could be arrested for not wearing a mask. That tells us there were people, or some people who were not wearing masks or did not want to wear masks or didn’t think it was necessary.”

Now, flash forward to another hundred years from now as history books describe New Mexico and the coronavirus. Martinez says he hopes, from masks to distancing, the books say New Mexico did something right.

“It reminds us that history isn’t just events that we study from a long time ago that are over. We are living history,” said Martinez. “We need to learn from history so that we don’t make the same mistakes.”

If you want to dive into New Mexico’s pandemic history, yourself, the state has archives and photos available online. The United States National Archives also has a full page dedicated to the influenza epidemic of 1918.

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