Skip to content Skip to footer

Anti-maskers then and now: The 2020 COVID pandemic vs. the 1918 Spanish Flu

It is a cliché to say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” but clichés become what they are for a reason – there is a grain of truth in them. With anti-maskers, COVID-fearless as they seem, history is repeating itself from 1918 to 2020.

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading in the United States. People started wearing masks out in public, some practiced social distancing, and everyone collectively started freaking out. Meanwhile, historians began comparing this to the Spanish Flu of 1918.

Masked people sitting around a table betting over toilet paper rolls
We know what commodities are truly valuable.

Different diseases, similar public reaction

Both illnesses attack the lungs, are caused by a virus, and are capable of surface spread. Both are highly contagious. Before talking about the cultural parallels, however, note the medical differences between these crises. Influenza was deadlier than COVID-19 and it killed people at much younger ages. 

However, early estimates of the death rates for COVID (such as the 0.6% quoted in that New York Times article) are low. Compare with the real-time data Johns Hopkins University has been collecting since March. Check out that dashboard and do the math yourself – it’s not pretty.

Another interesting tidbit – the 2020 hype over Hydroxychloroquine, a potential treatment for COVID-19 which turned out to be worse than ineffective, parallels a similar attempt in 1918 to treat Influenza using Quinine.

Both drugs are actually meant to treat malaria, according to Dr. Jeremy Brown, the author of Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, in an online talk hosted by Waltham Public Library.

More about public response than virus itself

The parallels highlighted, however, have less to do with the viruses themselves, and more with the public crisis responses. There is a portion of the population that refuse to wear face masks, as we’ve all seen. Another group mercilessly mocks those who refuse.

This is an attempt to enforce public health measures via social pressure, not legal force. Today, those who refuse are called “anti-maskers.” In 1918, they were known as “mask slackers.”

All this tension is bound to find a release in popular culture. In 2020, with so many of us bound to communicating via the internet, this has resulted in a lot of memes.

A pile of toilet paper rolls. Caption reads
Jokes about toilet paper stockpiles became quite the rage for a while.

Really, a lot of memes. Most have focused on the more absurd aspects of the pandemic, such as the rush by many Americans to stockpile toilet paper when the crisis first began.

Here come the memes

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: obviously, COVID-19 is not the only disease in existence. However, when people are scared of a pandemic, it’s easy to mistake any adverse symptoms as signs of the highly infectious coronavirus.

But, just as the social tension around the virus has become nasty, so have the memes.

It was in May 2020 that Calvin Munerlyn, a security guard in Flint, Michigan was shot and killed by an anti-masker. He was trying to enforce the mask order of the store he worked for. This death made headlines and sparked outrage – why would a simple request to wear a strip of cloth erupt into violence?

This wasn’t the first time, either. The same thing happened in 1918. That newspaper clipping above isn’t from COVID-19, it’s from the time of the Spanish Flu. It turns out that people are just as prone to senseless violence now as they were in 1918. Also, being asked to obey a basic safety measure, for the benefit of others, makes some people very angry.

Perhaps what is a sign of the times is that in 2020, we can publish jokes about these situations.

Anti-maskers COVID

Lower on the scale of meme grimness, we have the now-classic media tradition of poking fun at those who think COVID-19 is no big deal, or who speak out against mask-wearing. These anti-maskers, COVID-immune as they believe they are, are risking other people’s lives as much as they are their own.

While COVID is undeniably less deadly than the 1918 pandemic, and public health measures are more advanced today than they were in 1918, there’s still obvious danger posed by a virus that has killed almost a million people worldwide and almost 200,000 in the U.S. alone, as of this writing.

Absent a legal mandate, social pressure is a popular way of getting people to adopt a certain behavior. This often comes in the form of mockery, as in the above cases. In 2020, memes and cartoons making fun of anti-maskers (covid attractors) have grown popular on the internet alongside memes from the anti-maskers themselves.

The Anti-Mask League

Back in 1918, an organization called the “Anti-Mask League” formed.

E.J. Harrington, a lawyer and political activist, started the group in San Francisco to protest that city’s re-institution of a mask ordinance on the grounds that such laws were unconstitutional, and that the scientific evidence for masks was lacking.

Sound familiar? In 1918, too, the quarantine was shorter – just a few weeks, as Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society explained to WGBH.

“The quarantine period – just a few weeks – was so much briefer in most places than it is now. It was also a lot less systematic than this now,” he said in an interview in April. Perhaps it is no wonder that the resistance to quarantine was less pronounced then than now.

The major take-away from all this? It is easy to feel that we are living in unprecedented times. In all seriousness, the memes are correct about one thing: 2020 has been a disastrous year for many.

In times like these, it is important not to be caught entirely in the present. Looking back provides insight into the events of today and tells us what has truly changed, and what truly has not.

Looking forward in light of what we know about the past is necessary as we consider where society goes from here.