FACE-MASKS IN A PANDEMIC, THEN AND NOW: 1918-2020
On Tuesday of this past week an interesting and colorful feature story appeared in the New York Times on the use of face-masks during the Spanish-flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 in the United States (“A Raging Pandemic and a Resistance to Masks: Welcome to 1918”, by Christine Hauser, New York Times, August 4th, 2020, page A6).
Many comparisons are being made to the current COVID-19 Pandemic and the deadly Spanish-flu of a century ago. Both were worldwide pandemics. The so-called “Spanish-flu” left a horrifying mortality in its wake, and many of its prime victims were healthy young people. As the disease was spreading and sickening across the country in the fall of 1918, mandatory face-mask laws were put in place in a number of municipalities. San Francisco was the first American city to require people to wear facecoverings four layers thick, earning it the designation “the masked city”.
Penalties for non-compliance were severe: $5 to $10 (heavy fines for that time) or ten days’ imprisonment. On November 9th, 1918, 1,000 people were arrested for non-compliance. City prisons swelled to standing room only: courts sessions dragged on into the night. Jail terms of 8 hours to 10 days were given out. Those who could not pay were jailed for 48 hours.
San Francisco’s mask-law expired after four weeks at 12 Noon, November 21st:
The city celebrated and church bells tolled. A ‘delinquent’ bent on blowing his nose tore his mask off so quickly that ‘it nearly ruptured his ear,’ the San Francisco Chronicle reported. He and others stomped on their masks in the street. As a police officer watched, it dawned on him that ‘his vigil over the masks was done.’
Waiters, barkeeps and others bared their faces. Drinks were on the house. Ice cream shops handed out treats. The sidewalks were strewn with gauze, the ‘relics of a torturous month,’ the Chronicle said.
What is left out of this feature story, however, is that it was formerly the consensus that the facemasks were not effective in either slowing or stopping the spread of the Spanish-flu. In the present moment, when covering our faces to suppress the contagion of COVID-19 is fast approaching a medical mythology, such scrutiny is not to be allowed. Even to raise an eyebrow (as I am doing here) is to risk being lambasted as a selfish, stupid person who doesn’t “listen to science”.
Please do not misunderstand me. The COVID19 disease is no joke and I am not making light of it. But do let us have a sense of proportion. These events we are living through ought to make us aware of just how limited our collective human knowledge of things scientific really is when you get right down it. Science has still not understood what made the Spanish-flu of 1918- 19 so deadly:
In a sense, it is the ultimate frustration. Scientists have captured the mass murderer, the 1918 flu virus. But they still do not know its murder weapon...If this story was fiction, the clues would yield a suspect and the suspect would reveal the weapon. But it is science, and science is not always neat and clean. In science, each new finding can open the door to a flurry of new questions. (Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, by Gina Kolata, 1999).
Let us therefore learn what it is to endure in patience and to forbear one another in love.