Wearing A Face Mask Is Not New - But The Backlash Against Them Is, Say HistoriansHistorians in the News
tags: World War II, British history, public health, medical history
While many people support the move, there has been a backlash against them, with people saying masks do not work or make it difficult to breathe. Others have suggested that ordering people to wear them to stop the spread of the deadly disease impinges on their individual freedom.
But while masks may not be new, historians say the ferocity of this anti-mask movement is; a sign that modern attitudes remain a long way from the "Blitz spirit" the government has encouraged in the face of national crisis.
Propaganda films, pictures and newspaper articles from the Second World War show that face masks - not gas masks - were suggested by the British government to help prevent an outbreak of influenza among Londoners huddled in tube stations to avoid German bombing in 1940 and 1941.
The government ordered 500,000 masks, and the King's personal physician backed the plan, says Dr Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, of Strathclyde University, who has been researching the history of face masks.
"The striking thing about 1941 is that there was no debate or controversy between the scientists and the government, there was just rapid agreement that this made sense and it wasn't costly," he told The Telegraph.
"There is no evidence that anybody was upset or worried it was a threat to their freedom or Britishness - just that they would be unfashionable," he said. One article showed Harrods was preparing different styles to meet demand. Later, in the 1950s and 60s, The Beatles donned masks to protect them during smog.
Dr Olszynko-Gryn said it seems that people saw wearing masks during the war as patriotic - an emotion President Donald Trump appealed to this week in the United States, after finally accepting the role of masks in tackling the pandemic.
However, the flu season of 1941 was not particularly virulent, even in the cramped, poorly ventilated conditions in the bomb shelters, and there is no evidence that the masks were widely used, either, Dr Olszynko-Gryn added.
"They may not have needed all those masks they ordered, which were kept on standby," he said. "The opposite of what happened this time."
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