The world was taken by a pandemic, with thousands of deaths and millions of infected. But while scientists, authorities and health professionals recommend the use of protective equipment and social distancing, a group of people begins to deny the efficiency of these measures, and acts against all indications.
This paragraph would serve to describe the current covid-19 pandemic – and the various denialist groups in the USA, Brazil and so many other countries that refuse to follow the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the respective local health agencies. . But it also summarizes the case of the Anti-Mask League, which was formed in the city of San Francisco in the middle of Spanish Flu.
This story begins in October 1918. The first flu cases in San Francisco had appeared in the previous month, and the city, which had 500,000 inhabitants, quickly reached 2,000 infected. It wasn't long before the authorities recommended that people stay at home and avoid crowds.
Over time, businesses closed and the use of the mask became mandatory – the campaigns were incisive. The United States fought in the First World War, and the government associated the masks with a patriotic, defensive attitude towards the country. One of the Red Cross posters at the time said: "Coughing and sneezing spread disease, something as dangerous as poison gas: the spread of Spanish flu threatens our war production."
Although some people complained about using the masks to go out on the streets, the authorities did not turn a blind eye: the fine for those who were unprotected ranged from US $ 5 to US $ 10 (US $ 85 to US $ 170, in current values). Not even the mayor, James Rolph, escaped: in a photo published in the newspaper, he and other public officials appeared without the masks, and the police chief fined Rolph $ 50.
The rigid measures worked: it is estimated that 80% of the residents wore masks. Shortly thereafter, on November 21, San Francisco revoked the mandatory protection. People went back to their routines of going to work, to parks, to cinemas – and then the second wave of the epidemic came.
The League is born
The Spanish Flu – which, despite its name, probably appeared in the United States – happened in three waves, and the second was the most severe. In total, the pandemic has killed at least 50 million people (some estimate twice as much), as well as infecting a third of the global population. It claimed more victims than the two World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Korean War – together.
With the situation getting worse, in January, the city of San Francisco went back and forced, again, the use of masks – which left some residents dissatisfied.
Here, contextualization is worthwhile. In addition to the First World War and the pandemic, San Francisco was also recovering from another catastrophe: the historic earthquake of 1906, which happened in the San Andreas fault. The earthquake, which became known as the Great San Francisco Earthquake, was devastating. It reached eight degrees on the Richter scale (the highest ever in the country) and killed thousands of people.
With so many misfortunes happening in succession, it is easy to understand the discontent and lack of faith on the part of the population. When the standard of masks came back, some people immediately thought: "Now, if it didn't work the first time, why are they going to force us to use it again?" The Anti-Mask League was born there.
The group's first meeting brought together more than two thousand people. It was chaired by Emma Harrington, a deputy who, in 1911, was the first woman in town to vote. The meetings continued throughout the month – in one, more than 4,500 people gathered to protest the mayor and the secretary of health, Dr. William C. Hassler.
They argued that wearing masks was a burden, and questioned science about their effectiveness. In addition, they said that there were other more serious problems, such as the unemployment of soldiers who returned from the war, and that deserved more attention. According to The Guardian, they even sent a bomb for Hassler. The address, fortunately, was wrong, and no one was hurt.
Despite this, the authorities chose to ignore the movement. The League, after all, never managed to define its bases – some wanted to create a petition for the masks to be revoked; others only asked for Hassler's resignation.
In the end, they did not achieve any of this. Records show that on January 15, 1919 – the day before the second mask decree, – San Francisco recorded 510 new cases of flu and 50 deaths. Eleven days later, those numbers had dropped to 12 cases and four deaths. Harrington soon left the League command, and the new commander dissolved her. Point to science.