top of page

Opinion: 100 years of separation: 1918-1919, 2020-2021

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million. The first commercial recording of jazz music was released. Women won the right to vote in New York State.

President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. Germany promises to return the southwestern states to Mexico if the Mexican government sides with Germany in World War I. Conscription (drafting young men into the armed services) begins.


Oliver opened his morning newspaper and began reading President Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” a follow-up to his “Peace without Victory” speech, regarding the war with Germany. A couple of months later, a soldier in Kansas, became morbidly ill. Medical tests revealed his illness to be the first confirmed case of Spanish Flu. Crowded conditions at Camp Funston and Fort Riley, both in Kansas, caused the disease to spread quickly. The second wave struck in September, hitting Massachusetts first. Victims were quarantined.

The third wave involved both the U.S. and Europe. Soldiers from Kansas who were later transported to France to fight the war, spread the disease across the country on their way to eastern seaports. In the United States, October was the deadliest month when 195,000 Americans died. In Europe, the virus spread to allied troops in trenches and even to enemy troops in close proximity.

The disease, which spread around the world by the time the fourth wave hit, was caused by the H1N1 virus. There was no vaccine available to give immunity to the disease, and there were no antibiotics to fight secondary infections. The virus was most successful in attacking the very young and the very old. The only preventive measures that were used to protect people were quarantine, careful attention to good hygiene, limitations on public gatherings, and face masks.


Oliver pulled his 1915 Chevrolet Stanhope to the side of the road, stepped down onto the running board with a brick in his hand, and gave a nod of recognition to his friend Herb who was on his way to the meeting. Oliver wedged the brick under the right rear wheel of his car and walked across the street to the Citizens’ Hall.

He was late and had to stand in the back of the room with Herb and several other men. The meeting of the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco was already in progress. On October 25, 1918, the city had passed an ordinance requiring everyone in the city to wear a mask while in public.

It is estimated that 80 percent of the population complied, and the number of deaths and infections declined. On November 21, 1918, the city rescinded the order, and cases began to rise as the fourth wave hit. On January 17, 1919, the city revived the ordinance. The Anti-Mask League protested the action, claiming that the “science” was wrong and that the ordinance was an infringement on civil liberties.


In January, the World Health Organization became concerned about 59 cases of a pneumonia-like disease in Wuhan, China. By the end of the month, human-to-human transmission of the disease was quickly spreading and had been found in the United States, Germany, Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan. WHO issued a Global Health Emergency for just the sixth time.

Less than two months later, COVID-19 was declared to be a pandemic. California became the first state to issue a “shelter-in-place” order, mandating residents to stay home except to perform an essential job or to shop for essential needs. People are instructed in the proper method of washing hands and are encouraged to wear face masks when in public and, especially, when at an indoor public meeting.

After the drug Hydroxychloroquine proved ineffective in combating the disease, public attention settled on treatment for the illness with remdesivir, while scientists worked day and night trying to find a vaccine. By November, in record-breaking time, both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna announced excellent efficacy results from a new type of vaccine, using messenger RNA. As the year closed, close to three million Americans had received one dose of the new vaccine.


On September 22nd, Kristiana, Oliver’s great granddaughter, left her 2016 Model S Tesla convertible with the valet at the French Laundry in Yountville, a three-star Michelin-ranked restaurant in California’s beautiful Napa Valley. She was early for her luncheon with her Anti-Vaxer Committee. Like her ancestor, she questioned the science behind this novel approach to vaccination and considered it an infringement on civil liberties to require children to be vaccinated before attending school.

On the other side of the continent, the U.S. President was convening a virtual Global COVID-19 Summit meeting that ambitiously targeted three topics: Vaccinate the World, Save Lives Now, and Build Back Better. The conference included 100 governments and more than 100 leaders from international organizations, philanthropic groups, academia, and stakeholders.

At that time, COVID-19 had killed approximately 675,000 Americans, about the same number of Americans who died from the Spanish Flu. Once the delta variant developed, U.S. deaths increased to 1,900 per day, the highest since the beginning of March.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention warned that winter could bring a new surge. The University of Washington’s modeling project indicated that another 100,000 deaths could occur before January 1, bringing the total U.S. deaths from coronavirus to more than three-quarters of a million.

Just under 64 percent of Americans have had at least one dose of vaccine. Vermont and Massachusetts have the best record (77 percent), while Idaho, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Mississippi have the worst (46 percent).

Dr. Jeremy Brown of the National Institutes of Health stated that COVID-19 could have been far less lethal if more people had gotten vaccinated sooner, and “we still have an opportunity to turn it around.”

If you’re not vaccinated, get your shots. If you’ve been vaccinated, get your booster when you’re eligible.

• • •

Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contact at


bottom of page