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stethoscope-medical-influenza
Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Imagine you are a College first year moving into the Quad in September of 1918. The War in Europe rages on, so you enlist as a trainee in the Student Army Training Corps, which will play an active role in your academic and social life, since a majority of Penn students are members. Two days later, there is a war bonds parade with 200,000 Philadelphians in attendance, leading to 658 new cases of influenza by October 1, igniting a local epidemic of a lethal global pandemic

Penn’s campus is next. On October 4, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania is quarantined, which coincides with a public health order prohibiting public social gatherings. People self-isolate in fear. Penn’s first football game is canceled for three consecutive weeks after the head coach and players contract the virus. The Wharton Evening School’s start of classes sputters for almost two weeks after multiple postponements. On October 8, the Dental School cancels classes to protect students from treating patients with influenza. The next day, the Law School closes after a student died of influenza. The Medical School remains closed until the epidemic subsides. 

The SATC converts two fraternity houses originally intended as naval barracks – Delta Psi and Phi Kappa Psi – into emergency hospitals to quarantine and treat 27 student flu cases. Sanitation squads enter to clean your dorm room during the month of October. You hear about many medical and non-medical Penn students volunteering across Philadelphia to fulfill the shortage of doctors, nurses, and other essential workers due to the wartime labor shortage. 

By the end of October, campus activities have mostly returned to normal, with classes and athletics resuming by early November. By the end of Philadelphia’s flu epidemic, a number of Penn students, faculty and staff had been infected, with some students dying as martyrs fighting against the illness. 

Now imagine you are a first-year College student in August 2020. You will be taking classes from home since you don’t get the chance to move into campus housing. As you sit at your desk, you sigh as you wonder how you’ll make friends during virtual New Student Orientation, the Ivy League’s cancellation of fall varsity athletics, and the challenge of joining virtual student organizations. You understand it's for the best, to protect everyone’s safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it doesn’t make you feel much better. 

All summer, you’ve been quarantining indoors trying to make sense of our evolving world. In the United States, we’re luckily not at war like in 1918. Instead, the tides of racial justice are rising, with thousands gathering during the pandemic at Black Lives Matter protests. On top of it, we got sucker-punched with an economic recession due to the public health crisis

You want to volunteer to help win the battle against COVID-19. On your computer, you research and discover that other Penn students want to help too. You read about the student-created Corona Connects and the School of Nursing’s volunteer listings to learn how to help others. You smile with hope that you’ve found people like you. 

Only separated by a century, these two students’ parallel pandemic stories can teach us two lessons as we approach our uncertain future. First, if we adhere to common-sense, scientifically-based prevention practices, including quarantining when mandated, we can hopefully reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. After Penn instituted quarantines in October 1918, Philadelphia’s flu epidemic subsided by the end of the month. Although COVID-19 may not be defeated as quickly (especially while we wait for a widely available vaccine), we must still do whatever we can to save lives. However, Philadelphia’s 1918 War Bonds Parade cautions us that large public gatherings – even ones with noble intentions – can put ourselves and others at risk of infection. 

Second, the virtue of helping others during this challenging time can empower us and even save lives. From volunteering in World War I-depleted hospitals to finding opportunities on Corona Connects, Penn students have an intrinsic motivation to serve others. 

Wherever you are this fall, I encourage you to make time to volunteer for something you care about, whether it’s voter registration for the upcoming U.S. election (something I’ll be doing this fall), tutoring, or something completely different that fits your interests.

Even though we can’t meet them in person, we can sympathize with Penn students who attended in fall 1918. Their past can inform our present. By using history as our compass, we can get through this together. 

JADEN CLOOBECK is a College junior from Laguna Beach, California studying Psychology and Theatre Arts. His email address is jaden@sas.upenn.edu.

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