The Pandemic That Ravaged Canada and Its Lessons for Today

These days, walking around downtown Ottawa, and likely most other places in Canada, is an experience that’s both encouraging and melancholy.


And while restrictions on domestic travel haven’t been formally imposed, the shutdown of galleries, museums, ski resorts and pretty much anything else you’d likely visit while on vacation has effectively told everyone to stay put.

And as industrial employees, airline workers and even much of the staff at The Hockey News were sent home on temporary layoffs, oil prices continued to plummet.

At The Times, more than 360 journalists have been publishing a torrent of stories about the pandemic, roughly 100 a day. You can reach them all through here. And, as I mentioned last week, our coronavirus coverage is open to everyone without a subscription.

[Read: The Latest Updates on the Coronavirus Pandemic]

Within all of that material, there have been several articles offering practical advice. Here are a few that I have found useful:

— Tech columnist Brian X. Chen who, like me, is a longtime work-at-home type, offers advice for newcomers when it comes to sorting out technical issues. His key point: “Less is better, especially fewer gadgets and fewer work apps. That principle can guide us to a simpler, less frustrating setup that enables us to work well with our colleagues.”

— In Cooking, Margaux Laskey offers some meal suggestions for people in self-quarantine.

— And for those of you who can get outside for exercise, Talya Minsberg makes a compelling case to go running.

As the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to build in Canada, many people have drawn parallels with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Its toll was devastating. It killed an estimated 55,000 people in Canada by the time it ran out of steam in 1920, when the country had a population of just 8.7 million. No one really knows how many people died worldwide, but estimates range between 50 and 100 million.

There are many differences between the Spanish flu and the current coronavirus. They include the previous pandemic’s greater lethality as well as enormous advances in medicine, particularly the development of antibiotics. Many Spanish flu victims were actually killed by secondary bacterial infections that, for the most part, can be treated today.

To get a fix on what that earlier pandemic can tell us about today’s crisis, I spoke with Mark Humphries, a historian and the director of the Laurier Center for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. Professor Humphries’ books include “The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Most people believe that the Spanish flu was carried across Canada by troops returning from fighting in Europe during World War I. Is that how it happened?

There’s a popular perception that because we know that the war ends in November of 1918, that means somehow things are ramping down. But the reality is that the war effort really peaks in the fall of 1918. That includes the expansion of Canada’s war effort to create a force to go to Siberia to fight the Bolsheviks. They mobilized people across the country and that is what’s responsible for how the flu was seeded across the country.

It would have inevitably crossed the country no matter what and it probably would have happened over a period of several weeks rather than simply one week. It’s just that we can actually trace the spread in many local communities to those soldiers.

How quickly was the seriousness of the situation recognized?

Public health officials by this point were very experienced in tracking infectious diseases. And in many ways, what’s remarkable about the Spanish flu is how little worry it caused within professional circles. It was very much treated as just another of many different public health problems. And that, to me, is always the most remarkable thing when looking back at 1918.

The reason was that in 1918 you were far more likely to die of an infectious disease than today. Generally, we then had dozens of major infectious diseases that were constantly making the rounds in communities. And if you think about the war, it had by the fall of 1918 resulted in about 45,000 Canadian deaths by that point.

Why was the Spanish flu so lethal?

Nineteen eighteen was a very different time than today. Tuberculosis was rampant. The world was powered by coal in people’s houses as well as in industry and there were no scrubbers or anything like that on smokestacks. The baseline in terms of the everyday health of most working-class people was much lower. You’re dealing with a world in which you still had lots of children who developed rickets and other things like that.

So you mix all those things together, combined with overcrowding to a degree that is unimaginable today, and you create the perfect environment for a severe respiratory pathogen like the 1918 flu to run through the population.

How did it change Canada’s public health system?

At that point, most people conceived of public health as something for cleaning up nuisances and getting rid of so-called problems within society.

What 1918 convinced people of in Canada and around the world is that public health threats are not based in class, and are not simply limited to immigrants, which is how an awful lot of diseases were viewed in the 19th and early 20th century.

The change in mentality that comes out of 1918 is the recognition that taking a shared responsibility toward preventing, controlling and managing disease is important.

What does the history of the Spanish flu tell us about the current outbreak?

I’ve been reluctant to say this, but one of the lessons history teaches us is that we often get pandemics wrong or epidemics wrong as they’re occurring.

Today, public health officials hope that what they are doing slows the spread of the disease and that it ramps down the pressure on hospitals. And that’s entirely understandable. We do have to weigh that against the economic consequences and the social consequences of what’s happened and how long we can sustain what we’re doing.

What history teaches us is that in the moment, we don’t always get it right. I’m not sure what the right path is forward here. But what I find most remarkable is the universal way in which, and the speed with which, we’ve adopted measures that are completely unprecedented in history.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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