Letter: They did it in 1918, we can do it now

This week, in a campaign by the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation, newspapers across North Dakota are running ads calling out the success stories of 1918.

Steve Andrist
Steve Andrist

The words of Dr. Deborah Birx were stark.

On a visit to North Dakota last week, Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, laid it on the line:

“. . . in your grocery stores and in your restaurants and frankly even in your hotels, this is the least use of masks that we have seen in retail establishments of any place we have been."

She’s criss-crossed the country, and we’re the worst.

Perhaps it’s time to learn a lesson from our ancestors.


More than 100 years ago, the world and the nation were facing what we are today.

In 1918-1919 a virus spread world-wide, infecting about 500 million people and killing 50 million. That was about one-third of the world’s population. In the United States, some 675,000 died.

Young and old were victims of that flu pandemic. Troops moving around the world in ships and on trains were hit particularly hard. In fact, more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle.

A hundred years ago, there was no vaccine and no antibiotics for treatment. Schools, bars, theaters and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus was brought under control. The prescription was isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limited public gatherings.

And masks.

Masks of gauze, cheesecloth and fabric became the front lines in the battle against the virus. Medical authorities urged the wearing of masks to slow the spread of the disease. But like today there were protesters – called mask slackers – who objected to wearing face coverings. There were protests, petitions and defiant bare-faced gatherings.

History repeats itself.

Today the virus is raging throughout the country with warnings that the worst is yet to come. Medical professionals once again are telling us to isolate, quarantine, wash hands frequently, use disinfectants, limit public gatherings.


And wear masks.

In North Dakota, upwards of 40,000 people have been infected by COVID-19. Nearly 15,600 of them are between the ages of 20 and 39. Only four in that age demographic have died.

Just 7,650, approximately, of the total number of those infected are over 60, but 442 of them died.

Put another way, young people aged 20-39 make up 40% of the COVID cases and less than 1% of the deaths. Those over 60 make up less than 20% of the cases but 93% of the deaths.

Draw your own conclusions if you wish, but it’s clear that younger people who are more resistant to disease are contracting the virus and passing it on to their older friends, neighbors and family who are more devastated by the disease.

Meanwhile, the infamous curve isn’t even close to flattening. It just keeps climbing and climbing.

The result, in a state where people seem highly resistant to government mandates, cities one by one are adopting measures requiring the citizens to mask up whenever they’re in any public place.

This week, in a campaign by the North Dakota Newspaper Association Education Foundation, newspapers across North Dakota are running ads calling out the success stories of 1918.


The message notes that then, as now, some did it grudgingly even while the message then was the same as it is today: wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, social distance and wash your hands.

“It wasn’t political,” the message continues, “just people caring for their neighbors.”

They did it. We can too.

Andrist is executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

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