The Pandemic of 1918

Apparently, we learned nothing.


Just a shout out for a program that will run on the Smithsonian Channel tonight: Pandemic 1918.

As Christmas 1918 approached in San Francisco amid a continuing flu pandemic, the city was caught up in a fervid debate: Should citizens be made to wear masks?

Two months earlier it had been the first U.S. city to pass a mask law, backed up with a fine of $5 or up to 10 days in prison. But resistance was wide and strong.

Opponents called the masks uncomfortable, unsightly, and an impingement on their freedom, and hundreds of resisters were arrested, requiring extra police shifts. (Sound familiar?)

When the law expired on Nov. 21, people celebrated and threw their masks into the street. As case numbers rose and Christmas loomed, the city reconsidered a ban, but amid fierce opposition it was voted down on Dec. 19.

Weeks later a surge would bring a reinstatement of the ban, giving rise to an Anti-Mask League. But for Christmas, at least, residents were free to go barefaced, to the chagrin of public health director William Hassler. ‘The dollar sign,’ he lamented, ‘is exalted above the health sign.’


Here’s the thing about Covid-19, the pandemic we’re trying to survive now, though…

The US far outpaces the rest of the world, with over 25 million confirmed cases. We’re followed by India, with nearly 10.7 million cases, Brazil at 8.9 million, and then Russia with over 3.7 million.”

There are things Americans can do right now, in our pandemic, to help get the virus under control and save lives. Those measures include wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home as much as possible. Experts have been asking these things of the public for nearly a year. Tragically, large swaths of the country still refuse to follow this simple advice.