To Wear or Not to Wear a Mask? Backlash Against Ordinance in 1918 Spanish Flu Tells Us Why

  • In 1918, many were arrested in Atlantic belt for defying regulations that imposed orders to wear a mask

  • The Spanish Flu killed around 700,000 Americans and 50 million lives across the world

Coronavirus is not the first deadly pandemic the world has witnessed, and similarly the most basic steps to limit the spread remain the same. Masks tend to be the first line of defense worldwide against any virus, including the Covid-19 and starting from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to many health experts – everyone has recommended wearing a mask.

Even the US President Donald Trump, though reluctant to wear one initially, has finally observed that a mask can control the spread in communities, where people are unable to maintain social distancing. Interestingly, similar situation prevailed 102 years ago when the 1918 Spanish flu devastated the country with a death toll of more than 50 million lives across the world. Masks were mandated then too but many defied.

cops with masks in seattle
Policemen in Seattle, Washington, wearing protective masks made by the Seattle Chapter of the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic in 1918 The National Archives/ Twitter

The Spanish flu or H1N1 virus was said to have attacked the American troops in Fort Riley of Kansas in March 1918. On diagnosis, at least 100 men found to have contracted the H1N1 and it later spread across the Atlantic region killing as many as 675,000 Americans while the flu devastated nearly one third of the world.

Ordinance over wearing masks

When the government issued an ordinance that mandated wearing masks in 1918, tens of thousands defied the orders over wearing masks and many called them uncomfortable and over-imposing. The Utah government on November 26, 1918 had mandated wearing masks, in order to control the virus spread.

An excerpt from Influenza Regulations issued by then Ogden city authorities reads: "Everyone taking care of patients suffering from influenza and barbers, dentists, clerks, elevator operators, and others with similar professions, and those coming in close contact with crowds, shall wear masks."

Referring to the level of comfort sought by wearers in America, the newspaper 'The Ogden Standard' even published the required steps in making of face masks. One statement read: "Take a piece of gauze, eighteen by twenty-four inches, fold it four times evenly, attach four taps to the corners and you are provided with the best preventive against Spanish influenza yet devised [sic]." The paper clip is preserved by the National Archives of the US.

The arrests during 1918 pandemic

However, there were over 1,000 incidents of commoners and police confrontations in San Francisco – cases in which people denied wearing a mask or were caught with masks hanging on their neck or wrapped around their head, as seen even today amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just the way lockdowns are being imposed and lifted today amid the COVID pandemic, governments in America then changed the norms as per the requirement. Owing to mass defiance in wearing masks, the mask ordinance was scrapped, though it was again implemented in January 1919 when the second wave began and took a greater toll than the first one.

Defiance to wear mask

One Frank Bobich from Sacramento in California told the cops who arrested him that "I would rather be killed or hanged than cover my face with a mask".

Research from across the Atlantic belt speaks of such arrests where people were adamant not to wear a mask. C McKown was urged by a policeman in Indiana to wear a mask as he was out driving his car' Kown denied and he was arrested.

John Lynch from California's Bakersfield denied wearing a mask inside a packed theater. He allegedly reiterated that he would not wear a mask, while no police or authority can force him to do so.

Commoners apart, even health professionals scrapped the regulations to wear a mask. A physician Dr J Clifford was booked in 1919 for not wearing a mask.

Clifford pledged to fight the case while he stressed, "I am physician and I do not believe that guidelines as issued by the health departments to wear a mask, will help to prevent the spread of H1N1, whatsoever," he was quoted as saying by HistoryExtra.

Eventually, the order was again scrapped in February, allowing shops and movement while schools, colleges and mass gatherings remained restricted.

Regulations over 1918 PANDEMIC
A newspaper cutting from Ogden in Utah that reads the regulations in place for influenza flu of 1918 Twitter

The 1918 influenza that started mid march in 1918, ended by the summer of 1920. In nearly two years span, the virus killed around 700,000 in America and the world toll stood at 50 million lives.

No wonder, Trump and the CDC asserted last week: "Wear a mask to protect others and your family, not just you." So far, COVID 19 has killed more than 600,000 so far and the number of confirmed cases are around 15,720,520 as on July 24. As many as 9,593,032 people have recovered.

This article was first published on July 24, 2020