Frustrated by a spreading and deadly epidemic and the refusal of some citizens to wear masks and otherwise comply with recommendations of public health authorities, the mayor of San Diego spoke bluntly.

“There is a class of people blind and indifferent to the death and sick rate,” he said. “If we cannot put life and health above dollars and pleasure for a few days we had better abolish the Bible and the Constitution.”

No, you didn’t miss that statement in yesterday’s news. This was in 1918, during the flu pandemic that eventually would take millions of lives worldwide, including more than half a million in the United States.

It was wartime, too, and using the language of wartime propaganda the mayor urged Americans to resist germs as vigorously as they opposed the Kaiser’s Germany.

“I cannot see a particle of difference between the invasion of France by the heartless, lustful Huns and the invasion of our homes by some epidemic permitted by greed and politics.”

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

In “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic,” historian Nancy K. Bristow highlights a great many parallels between that global disaster and the pandemic we are struggling through now.

The similarities in efforts to control the spread and how we the people respond is especially fascinating, considering that Bristow’s book was published eight years ago.

Then as now, local officials knew they needed to convey to people the importance of public health and how citizens could improve their chances of not getting sick and dying. Then as now, they needed guidance and funding from state and national leaders. “But it was the public that would play the largest role in shaping their community’s experience of the epidemic,” Bristow wrote. “Citizens needed to be either convinced or policed to accept control over their public and private behaviors.”

It should be no surprise to us that the convincing – and especially the policing – ran into resistance. There was "growing frustration with government control over their lives as days turned into weeks and then months.” Officials faced opposition to vaccines as “government tyranny” or on religious grounds.

Scientists, medical personnel and civic leaders struggled to balance the need to inform against the desire not to frighten.

The American public in 1918 tended to accept the closing of such places as dance halls and saloons, “easily categorized as unnecessary, indeed hazardous, during an epidemic,” Bristow found, but many people “hotly contested” decisions involving churches and schools.

Chicago’s health commissioner argued that closing schools would “send the children into the streets and alleys without supervision.” At school, they would have access to school doctors and nurses “and the corps of teachers,” who could impart valuable lessons on personal hygiene.

Some religious leaders argued that prayerful gatherings of the faithful were never more needed.

Such measures as the wearing of masks, closing public places and banning public meetings “required still greater efforts on behalf of public leaders and were largely inconceivable without enforcement mechanisms.”

There was much talk a century ago about the role of personal responsibility and the faith we should put in the people’s willingness, nobly and selflessly, to do the right thing. Then as now, that produced mixed results, which led to the U.S. Public Health Service’s production and distribution of a poster that declared, “IT’S UP TO YOU.” The duration of severe controls depended on citizens accepting public health mandates.

“Impatience, carelessness, and a premature assumption that the epidemic has passed has caused a rather general relapse,” the poster’s message explained. “This means that continued restrictions must be imposed upon some places, the duration of which will be a direct result of your conduct.”

In San Francisco, local government adopted an ordinance requiring “all citizens to wear masks when on public streets, in any place where more than two people assembled, and even in their own homes if more than two people were present.” Compliance was near total, the local Board of Health determined, crediting that for helping to cause the epidemic to recede within days.

Back to today.

People who have committed their lives to protecting us from plagues and pandemics have drawn lessons from those earlier experiences. They have some sense of what it takes to defeat a virus. They have long promoted the use of masks against COVID-19, citing studies that showed masks helped to prevent infected people (including people with no symptoms) from spreading the virus to others.

And earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control cited new studies showing that masks not only block virus particles exhaled by the wearer but also provide the wearer some “filtration for personal protection.” The higher the mask use, combined with other recommended actions, the more effective that will be, the CDC said. In addition, the agency pointed to an economic analysis that found that universal masking policies “can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation.” The economic benefit would be staggering.

So, for yourself, for others, for your community and the economy, too … wear a mask.

Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at crhaga@gmail.com.