Manitoba has experience with pandemics


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AS the virus spread, all Manitoba schools were ordered to close, theatres went dark, church services were dropped and all public meetings were cancelled.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/03/2020 (1171 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

AS the virus spread, all Manitoba schools were ordered to close, theatres went dark, church services were dropped and all public meetings were cancelled.

Seem familiar?

The measures listed above were taken from headlines of Manitoba newspapers 102 years ago, as the province was hit by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. These same actions have been taken in the past couple of weeks as Manitoba tries to curtail the novel coronavirus that causes the illness called COVID-19.

Winnipeg Free Press Files Manitoba Free Press delivery boys wear surgical masks during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Although the two pandemics are separated by a century, a comparison shows several important parallels with the current crisis in Manitoba. The similarities are intriguing; the differences can be instructive.

First, an important caution: no reputable public health expert is saying the coronavirus pandemic will approach anywhere near the magnitude of the 1918 influenza, which killed 50 million people worldwide. Medical science has improved considerably since treatments for the 1918 influenza included arsenic, mercury, strychnine and even bloodletting.

In 1918, they hadn’t yet isolated the influenza A virus, and didn’t fully understand the vital importance of sterilization and hygienic practices such as frequent handwashing.

MANITOBA KNEW IT WAS COMING: As with today’s coronavirus, Manitobans in 1918 knew well in advance the influenza was coming because it was destroying the populations of other countries and was spreading around the globe. They had read all about it in Manitoba newspapers sold by newsboys for two cents a copy.

HOW IT GOT HERE: Both the novel coronavirus and the 1918 influenza arrived in Manitoba via international travel. In 1918, a troop train carrying soldiers returning from the First World War included three soldiers with the influenza virus, who were taken on stretchers to a military hospital in Tuxedo, from which the virus erupted. Manitoba’s first presumptive COVID-19 case was a woman who had recently travelled to the Philippines, and almost all of the following cases in Manitoba have also been related to travel.

FIRST NATIONS HIT WORST: With COVID-19, Indigenous leaders have warned in the past week that the virus could run rampant on Manitoba First Nations that lack health-care resources and even some basics of sanitation. With the 1918 influenza, Indigenous communities experienced death rates 10 times higher than the rest of Manitoba. On Sagkeeng First Nation, victims of the influenza are buried in a mass grave.

TEMPORARY HOSPITALS ESTABLISHED: With COVID-19, a big worry is that hospitals, which are already overcrowded, will be unable to cope with a big spike in coronavirus cases requiring emergency care. With the 1918 influenza, hospitals quickly filled up and turned away patients. Buildings converted into temporary hospitals included St. John’s College and the La Salle Hotel in Elmwood.

PANDEMIC PROFITEERING: During these initial stages of COVID-19 spread in Manitoba, there have been blessedly few public reports of businesses raising prices to profit from the pandemic, other than toilet paper and hand sanitizer priced a small amount higher than usual. But with the 1918 influenza, business was booming for the undertakers and the price of funerals soared, which outraged many people who were out of work and couldn’t afford to bury their dead.

THE NON-WORKING CLASS: Even though Manitoba’s first case of COVID-19 was announced only on March 12, many people have been thrust into unemployment because of the mass shutdown of facilities and services. It was like that in 1918 also, and it got ugly. An economic slump hit the working class of Winnipeg’s North End particularly hard, and people without paycheques got unruly, contributing to the Winnipeg General Strike in the spring of 1919.

WHO’S INFECTED?: In 2020, privacy regulations prevent health officials from publicly disclosing the names, addresses and workplaces of people with COVID-19, although some of us want to know so we can judge whether we may have unwittingly inhaled the respiratory droplets of these victims. The identities of victims wasn’t protected in 1918; in fact, the homes of victims of the influenza were required to be placarded as a kind of quarantine, although many victims didn’t do it, because of the stigma.

ALL ABOUT THE WOMEN: Manitobans in the shadow of COVID-19 are being urged to show compassion. As Premier Brian Pallister said this week, “Donate blood, help a senior shop, shovel your neighbour’s walk. Be kind to one another, help one another.” Note that the premier’s encouragement is not gender-specific. With the 1918 influenza, care fell largely to women because it was thought their natural inclination was to be tender-hearted and compassionate. In 1918, at least 650 women in Winnipeg volunteered to take food and care for the sick, even though they knew they were putting their own lives in danger.

Today, the only remaining 1918 influenza virus is kept in high-security storage in several international labs, including the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. It’s used for research by laboratory scientists trying to keep pace with mutating viruses so humanity never again has an outbreak as deadly as the 1918 influenza.

(Information about the 1918 influenza was taken from three sources: Esyllt W. Jones wrote an acclaimed book called Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg. Tim Higgins and Peter Wilton wrote separate articles published by The Manitoba Historical Society. The opinions in this article, and any errors, are mine.)

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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