America Led Global Mask Wearing During the 1918 Flu Pandemic. What Changed?

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many mixed messages about masks and their effectiveness in fighting the novel coronavirus. 

Many Asian countries, including coronavirus-success-stories Vietnam and Taiwan, were quick to make mask-wearing mandatory. The West, however, were much slower to act, with the US Surgeon General even warning against masks at one point. 

This is surprising when you note that the US were world leaders in mask-wearing during the 1918 flu pandemic. Wearing a mask was mandatory, there were severe consequences for citizens who didn’t follow the rules, and public opinion was generally accepting of the notion.

This is a far cry from the outrage that swept the nation after the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommendation to wear a mask or face-covering in public areas where social distancing is not possible. Many states have taken this recommendation one step further by making mask-wearing a requirement in certain situations. This has been the cause of many protests and an outright refusal to wear a mask by a number of citizens. 

What Happened During the Spanish Flu? 

From January 1918 to December 1920, the so-called Spanish Flu infected one-third of the world’s population and killed around 50 million people. Around half a million of these deaths were in the US. 

It became a global pandemic when World War I soldiers traveled around the globe, bringing the flu with them. Similarly to the current pandemic, quarantine hospitals were repurposed from warehouses and other buildings. 

However, the main difference between the two pandemics is the US’ response with regards to face masks. In 1918, a second wave of the pandemic hit San Francisco hard, with a significant increase in infected patients being reported. The city’s Board of Supervisors then took drastic action to slow down the spread of the flu by unanimously deciding to pass the Influenza Mask Ordinance, making mask-wearing in public mandatory.

The Response to Mandatory Face Masks

An awareness campaign began in San Francisco, warning people of the consequences of non-compliance with the new rules. Slogans like “wear a mask and save your life”, “obey the laws, and wear the gauze” and “protect your jaws from septic paws” were published around the city in various formats. 

The campaign was a success. So much so, that other cities across the US, and also much of Europe, quickly followed suit. 

Punishments for not wearing a mask in the US were taken seriously. They included fines and even imprisonment. For example, a photograph taken at a live sporting event in California showed that 50% of the crowd was maskless. After identifying each culprit, the police made an example of them by urging each individual to make a donation to a charity supporting soldiers overseas in order to avoid prosecution.  

Members of the public were, at large, in support of the mask-wearing laws, and they were mostly policed by consent. Judges, politicians, and policemen were all seen to be wearing masks in public, which was no doubt encouraging for everyday citizens. Police Chief Bailey of Tuscon, Arizona, said: “No gatherings will be considered fashionable unless the attendees are attired in masks."

What Changed?

Now, it’s a different story. With the president himself publicly refusing to wear a mask, and many high profile figures doing the same, it’s no surprise that many US citizens view mask-wearing as unnecessary. 

The public’s reluctance to wear face masks was perhaps also fuelled by the constantly-changing advice. Had the CDC and US Surgeon General made mask-wearing mandatory at the beginning of the pandemic, we perhaps would have seen a different outcome. 

Another reason for the difference in public opinion could be that, since the US has not seen similar outbreaks in the last century, the benefits of wearing masks have been forgotten over the last serval generations. 

Asia, on the other hand, has had to deal with many devastating outbreaks, including most recently the 2003 SARS pandemic. This has helped to develop and maintain a mask-wearing culture, using the lessons learned from America’s success during the Spanish Flu. 

Why You Should Wear a Mask

The science hasn’t changed. Mask-wearing during the 1918 flu pandemic was seen to work by flattening the curve of infection rates. 

COVID-19 is transmitted by large infectious droplets that are expelled from the mouths and noses of infected people, with or without symptoms. Wearing a mask limits the distance that these droplets can travel, making it harder for them to reach the not-yet-infected. 

Wearing a mask is a conscientious decision that every American should make in order to protect others from themselves, therefore limiting the spread of the virus and community-based transmission.

Where Can I find a Mask?

During the Spanish Flu pandemic, churches and community groups across America came together to make as many masks as possible. Similarly, many people in the US have been making their own masks at home. With a little know-how and some creativity, a home-made face covering isn’t too much trouble. However, they often don't offer the same protection as s professionally made, fit-for-purpose mask.

Fast Ship Face Mask is a Florida-based company that is committed to providing citizens in communities across America with high-quality masks that are affordable, comfortable, and eco-friendly face masks.

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