Pandemic lessons from the past: The Spanish flu of 1918 also challenged Hawaii

Updated: May. 12, 2020 at 8:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Oahu Cemetery historian Nanette Napoleon is compiling a list of people buried in the graveyard who died during the Spanish flu outbreak that began in 1918.

So far she’s found 12 grave sites.

"There's two people on the list that actually don't have markers. They have the card that says they're buried here but no marker," she said.

Some of the deceased were prominent in Hawaii society. Their last names are still recognizable today.

Edmund Hedemann died in 1919.

In 1920, Thomas Hustace and his wife Alice were just 31 and the parents of three children when they got sick.

"They died within two weeks of one another," Napoleon said. "They're buried down here in the Hustace plot, which is another famous name in Hawaii associated with the Wards."

Her research only scratches the surface of the deadly impact the illness had on the islands.

The Spanish Flu pandemic killed more than 2,300 people in Hawaii. Graves of victims are scattered throughout the state.

“The islands were not spared any more than the continental United States,” said Shana Brown, an associate professor and chair of the History Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

She sees similarities in how society handled the Spanish Flu and how it's reacting to COVID-19.

“Social distancing was also in place. Although I think it was more difficult to be consistent about it,” she said.

“Churches were also closed for a time and schools. But as we see now, there was a debate about opening up again, and places would open and then shut.”

Globally, about 500 million got sick from the Spanish Flu and about 50 million died.

Napoleon’s learning more about those buried at Oahu Cemetery.

"The story wouldn't be the story unless you can tell who the people are, something about their lives," she said.

The youngest on her list was only 9 months old.

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