Scientists and historians alike have been studying the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak to better understand and predict how the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to progress. There are many lessons to be learned, including the importance of social distancing measures and the timing of their introduction. However, it is also interesting to see how the current public resistance to preventative measures such as mask wearing echoes what occurred a century ago.
As the deadly influenza virus that would eventually claim tens of millions of lives spread through the United States, social distancing measures were brought into effect across the country. Schools were closed, large gatherings discouraged, and the wearing of masks was advised. Some cities introduced fines for those without a mask – in San Francisco, failing to follow the mask ordinance could result a fine of up to 100$ or even 10 days’ imprisonment.
Many nevertheless refused to wear a mask in public, considering mandatory mask wearing as a threat to civil liberties. Some men also perceived wearing a mask as being unmasculine, and were generally harder to convince than women. During San Francisco’s second wave, an organisation called the Anti-Mask League was formed to protest the reintroduction of the ordinance. They argued that mask wearing wasn’t supported by scientific evidence, but the league may also have been politically motivated. Its president was a lawyer, suffragist and labour rights activist named Mrs E.C Harrington, who was highly critical of the incumbent mayor.
In order to counter these sentiments, public health officials moved to re-brand hygiene precautions as patriotic, while those who refused were branded as ‘slackers’. Historians now believe that the enforcement of mask wearing in San Fancisco at least partly contributed to the decline of influenza deaths in that city. Meanwhile in Washington, epidemiologist Thomas Tuttle made many enemies by becoming a prominent advocate of social distancing and mask wearing. Some have described him as the ”Dr Fauci of the Spanish flu”.
It is unfortunate that similar opposition to mask wearing and other measures has developed during the current pandemic, especially considering scientific evidence for their impact is much stronger than it was in 1918.
These surprisingly relevant vintage ads show how officials tried to convince people to wear masks after many refused during the 1918 flu pandemic: https://www.businessinsider.fr/us/people-vintage-mask-ads-spanish-flu-1918-pandemic-2020-5
Unmasking History: Who Was Behind the Anti-Mask League Protests During the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in San Francisco?: https://doi.org/10.34947/M7QP4M
Anti-Mask League of San Francisco: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Mask_League_of_San_Francisco
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