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Lessons from the Spanish flu of 1918: When the masked law sparked protests in America

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |

Update: August 9, 2020 5:15:09 pm

Lessons from the Spanish flu of 1<div class="e3lan e3lan-in-post1"></div>918: When the masked law sparked protests in America A Spanish Flu victim in St Louis, USA. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1918, when the Americans were busy assisting Allied powers during World War I, raging across Europe, they were besieged at home by a deadly flu. The Spanish flu has been reported to have killed 10 times more Americans than were killed by German bombs and ammunition during the war.

Spanish flu arrived in the US at a time when mass transit, mass consumption and war opened up public spaces where infectious diseases could spread. As one of the most widespread and devastating epidemics of the 20th century, the flu also arrived at a time when medicine had flourished. How the historian Nancy Tomes, in her article, ‘The Terminator and the Teacher’: Managing Masses during the 1918–1919 Flu Pandemic, explained how the 1918 flu “Simple to understand, but difficult to control.

The flu was first reported in March 1918, at an army base in Kansas where nearly 100 soldiers were infected. Within a week, the number of cases increased by 5 times. As thousands of soldiers deployed for the war moved across the Atlantic, the flu spread with them. The local government has implemented a number of measures to control its spread including closing schools, banning public gatherings, not spitting and the like. One measure that has become a point of debate is mandatory wearing of a mask. Then, as it is today, a heated debate ensued over the use and convenience of wearing a mask. The citizens ignored the decree, defied, and some even organized protests like today, politically motivated.

Compulsory masks for everyone – Law first during the Spanish flu period

The practice of covering the nose and mouth as the first modern European-originated hygiene practice. During the spread of the Bubonic plague, doctors wore a beak mask filled with perfume. The reason behind wearing this mask is the belief that infectious diseases are spread through toxic pollutants in the air or miasma. The perfume-filled masks are said to have the ability to protect those wearing it. However, this practice started to disappear in the 18th century.

An inscription of a plague physician in Marseilles was made in 1721 C.E. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The use of masks, as is practiced today, can be traced back to the 1880s when a group of surgeons devised a strategy to prevent germs from entering a wound. Johann Mikulicz, head of the department of surgery at the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), started wearing a mask he described as “A gauze is tied by two ropes to the hat, and swept over the face to cover the nose and mouth and the beard.” “Masks represent an infection control strategy that focuses on stopping all germs, rather than killing them with chemicals,” biologist Bruno J Strasser and historian Thomas Schlich wrote in their research paper, ‘The history of medical masks and the rise of throwaway culture’.

But until the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the use of masks was limited within the operating room. The Spanish flu ushered in a new era in mask history, when for the first time American doctors, patients and residents were asked to wear them outside their homes.

Mask commission – An act of patriotism

The masking rule first appeared in Western states. In the late fall of 1918, seven US cities introduced mandatory masking laws including San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento, Denver, Indianapolis and Pasadena, California. However, it is San Francisco that is at the forefront of masking law.

Barbers wearing a mask during the campaign (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On October 18, the city’s medical staff, Dr. William C. Hassler ordered all barbers to wear masks when in contact with their clients and requested public contact staff. they must also wear a mask. Over the following days, he added hotel and bank staff, chemists, store staff, and anyone else serving the public to the list. It is also compulsory for citizens to wear masks in public. The ‘Masks Ordinance’ of October 22, made San Francisco the first city to require the use of a four-layer mask. The city was soon known as the ‘masked city’.

Since America was still fighting at the time, local authorities have shaped measures to control the spread of the disease with patriotism. Orders were put in place to protect troops from outbursts. As a result, a Red Cross public service announcement stated – “The man or woman or child who is not wearing a mask is now a dangerous lethargic.” San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, on the other hand, declared that “conscience, patriotism and self-defense require immediate and tough compliance” with the masking order.

The mail carrier in New York City wears a mask when sick with the flu. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

‘Face mask or not mask’ – Resistance and enforcement

As in 2020, the masking decree of 1918 also saw stubborn opposition from some Americans. As a result, those violating the law wearing the mask are fined $ 5 or $ 10, or sentenced to less than 10 days in prison.

Writing on the BBC’s website, History Extra, Professor E Thomas Ewing explains that most violations of the masking ordinance are due to “Indifference, ignorance or convenience.” “In San Francisco, almost 110 people arrested on the first day wore a mask around their necks, which shows their denial is for convenience rather than against the rule with rules,” he wrote.

There are also those who claim that the masks are detrimental to their safety. Ewing offers an anecdote about a mechanic in Tucson, Arizona, who admits not wearing a mask, claims “It’s not safe to do so, as it would interfere with his vision and put him responsible for mechanical injury.” In Santa Barbara, California, a doctor, Dr. J. Clifford responded to his arrest by saying he did not believe in using the mask as it did not do anything to control the spread. of the disease.

In November 1918, San Francisco residents were allowed to remove their masks when their health department announced the epidemic was over. The city celebrated with great joy. “Waiters, waitresses, and others show their teeth. Drinks are already in the house. Ice cream shops give gifts. Journalist Christine Hauser wrote in an article in the New York Times, the sidewalk is covered with gauze, “relic of a month of death”.

The celebrations were short-lived, though, as within weeks the number of flu cases spiked again, and by December 1918 the masking decree was restored. In response to this imposition, a self-styled ‘anti-mask’ federation was formed. “The same people who celebrated their bare” liberation “when allowed to remove their masks in November 1918, have now organized protests against the return of this public health measure,” Medical historian Brain Dolan wrote in his article, ‘Revealing history: Who was behind the Anti-Masks League protests during the 1918 Flu Pandemic in San Francisco?’

The first thing the group did was call a public meeting with the intention of issuing a petition to fire the city health worker, William Hassler, and threatening Mayor Rolph if he did not comply with the requirements. of citizenship.

Dolan argued that the ‘anti-mask’ coalition was more politically motivated than medical. The president of the coalition, EC Harrington, along with other key members, had the political motive behind calling for Rolph to resign.

A century later, when the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed ordered city residents to “wear a veil in essential businesses, in public facilities, while in transit and while carrying out shelters. essential work, ”a heated debate then again about the effectiveness and feasibility of the mask. Not surprisingly, the city’s eventful history with masking law is being studied to learn from it. Dolan explained the lessons from the comparison – “As with this historical example, we find that it is nearly impossible to enforce full compliance with a measure that alters social behavior overnight. Today’s efforts to persuade the majority of compliance, however, appear to be delivering better results than before in controlling the spread of the disease. It is a place where we can feel comfortable not being like the past ”.

read more

“Terminator and Teacher”: Mass Management during the 1918–1919 Flu Pandemic by Nancy Tomes

Turning to History: Who Was Behind the 1918 Flu Pandemic Anti-Mask Demonstrations in San Francisco? by Brian Dolan

Hide or wear a mask: Notes on the 1918 Spanish flu in Tucson by Bradford Luckingham

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