On this day in 1918, the first case of the Spanish Flu was recorded in Canada.
The Spanish Flu Pandemic killed anywhere between 50 and 100 million people. We will never know the true toll. It’s thought that a third of all humans alive at the time were infected. Three percent of the global population died.
Today, 7.8 billion humans are alive. If Covid-19 became as bad as the Spanish Flu, 2.3 billion people would become infected and 243 million would die—numbers that today are impossible to imagine, even as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
The death toll of the Spanish Flu was far greater than the death toll of the entire First World War. Yet how much space has this pandemic occupied in our collective memory, compared to that war? And if the Spanish Flu had occupied a more prominent place in that memory, would our response to this pandemic have been different? More effective? What lessons could we have learned?
In Canada, the Spanish Flu had a devastating effect. Out of a population of roughly eight million, the disease killed 50,000. That would be the equivalent of the coronavirus killing 237,500 Canadians today, out of our population of 38 million. To date, Canada’s Covid-19 death toll is 22,000. The Spanish Flu swept through the country, wiping out entire communities and reaching even the smallest and remotest Canadian settlements.
And its staggering death toll came directly after the deaths of 60,000 Canadians in the First World War. The country was still reeling from the trauma and destruction of that war. The Spanish Flu arrived in Canada with the return of its troops, and many of those troops soon fell to the disease.
Eighteen-year-old Alan Arnett MacLeod, of Stonewall, Manitoba, contracted the Spanish Flu before arriving home from England. He had survived an attack in France by seven German Fokkers, part of Manfred von Richtofen’s “Flying Circus” and piloted by the best airmen in Germany’s air force. McLeod was awarded the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for bravery, for his courage in landing his own plane and heroically fighting to save the life of his crewmate. He returned home a hero, and his entire town rejoiced. It was a short-lived celebration. He died two days later, struck down by the epidemic.
The origins of the Spanish Flu are not clear, partly because of the effects of the war. Soldiers in Europe went home and carried the flu with them. Most showed only minor symptoms when they first arrived, and no one thought to isolate them. Furthermore, Allied countries in Europe suppressed all media coverage of the flu, not wanting to cause a panic. The so-called “Spanish” Flu ironically got its name because Spain, a neutral country with a free press, was the first to widely report on it.
Despite this suppression of valuable information, the Spanish Flu travelled slower than Covid-19 has today, largely due to how people travelled a hundred years ago. Without the constant coming and going of jets, the Spanish Flu travelled along rail lines and in ships.
It first arrived in Canada in the port cities of Halifax, Montreal, and Quebec City, then spread slowly west. It wasn’t until almost seven months later, on October 2nd, 1918, that Victoria, on the west coast, reported its first case.
Canadian governments did nothing to restrict rail travel between provinces, and the flu spread along the tracks, disembarking in every small town from the east to the west.
The first wave hit Canada in the spring of 1918, but it was not until the second wave in the fall that things became more serious. A mutated variant of the virus began to circulate, and it was far more deadly, contagious, and virulent. In fact, 90% of the Spanish Flu’s death toll occurred during that second wave.
Canada’s health care has come a very long way since 1918. At the start of the Spanish Flu epidemic, there was no public health insurance. Most provinces did not have health departments, and the federal government only created the Department of Public Health in 1919, after facing criticisms for not doing enough during the epidemic. Hospitals were soon overrun, doctors and nurses exhausted and ill themselves. Volunteers were forced to set up temporary medical facilities in hotels and schools.
There were no adequate treatments either, and certainly no vaccine. While the Connaught Laboratories in Toronto worked tirelessly to come up with one, the “vaccine” they eventually distributed to hospitals was, essentially, useless. Without any government departments of health, there was certainly no Health Canada to approve treatments such as this one.
Unlike Covid-19, the Spanish Flu was most devastating to those between the ages of twenty and forty. Symptoms ranged from headaches to chills, coughs, fevers and muscle aches, and the disease sometimes killed within twenty-four hours.
Doctors scrambled to find treatments. Bicarbonate soda—baking soda—and limewater were used to combat excessive acid in the body. Epsom salts were used to clean out the digestive tract, and alcohol and narcotics used to treat pain, when patients could get them. And, incredibly, heroin was used in small doses to treat coughs and insomnia. Businesses clambered to convince the public that their products would be useful in treating the Spanish Flu.
Quarantines were inconsistent, scattered, and largely ineffectual. People continued to travel across the country, and while businesses, schools and churches were often closed and masks mandated, the lack of resources and lack of consistent regulations undermined many of these efforts. In 1918, the federal government requested that people not celebrate the ending of the First World War until December 1st, in an effort to curb public gatherings. This request was largely ignored—unsurprisingly, perhaps, when the war had caused four years of trauma and destruction, and its end was a major relief to the entire country.
It is interesting to sort through the many similarities and contrasts between the 1918 pandemic and our own. Arguments about masks were common then, and are common now. Businesses and schools were closed and then opened again. The economy crashed, due partly to a lack of demand for goods, and partly to the lack of a healthy workforce.
Yet perhaps the most troubling of these similarities is how both the Spanish Flu and Covid-19 have disproportionately impacted the lower classes and minorities. The death toll of the Spanish Flu was higher in poorer neighbourhoods, which were often overwhelmingly inhabited by immigrants. This was largely due to crowded, unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, and an inability to safely isolate. Without savings to fall back on, workers could not afford to stay home. This quote from an article on the Spanish Flu in the Canadian Medical Association Journal emphasizes this problem, and could almost be about either pandemic:
“Canadians faced a dilemma, caught between continuing to do paid work and going without food or paying the rent. Individual quarantine measures were introduced to slow the spread of the disease, but these were not accompanied by income supports. Health officials were, rightly, afraid that people would not report their illnesses so that they could continue on the job.”
While today’s government has taken much more dramatic action to help the public, with programs like CERB, enhanced unemployment and CEBA, there are still many who are falling between the cracks.
In 1918, Canada’s Indigenous peoples were hit far harder than the national average. Amongst non-Indigenous populations, around 6.2 out of every 1000 people died of the flu (a horrific number in its own right). Yet this number climbed as high as 61 per 1000 people in Alberta’s Indigenous populations.
Exacerbating this inequality was the fact that First Nations people faced discrimination and racism within the health care system. Hospitals would often place them in segregated wards, where conditions were far worse than the wards which housed white people. The same can be said for many other ethnic minorities in Canada’s more or less explicitly racist society at the time.
The pandemic altered the fabric of Canadian society in many ways. The tragedy left behind broken families. When fathers died, working class families went without their chief breadwinner, and the women of the household struggled to find jobs in a job market that largely excluded them. When mothers died, fathers tried in vain to look after all of their children while still holding down a stable job.
And the virus seemed to target these people: 50% of those infected worldwide were healthy young men and women under 40. In the years following the pandemic, orphanages were full in a country that had been broken by war and disease.
Yet good things came from it too. Governments worked to improve health care systems and create federal and provincial departments of health. Poor and unsanitary work conditions, the inability of poor workers to safely isolate when sick, and the lack of employment insurance during the epidemic contributed to the labour movements of 1919 that swept the country (including the Winnipeg General Strike). These movements, though suppressed across Canada, spread their ripples through the subsequent decades and led at last to the formation of unions and the improvement of working conditions.
As we look towards the one-year anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us may wonder what society will look like when this is all over. How will things change? How has the pandemic shed a light onto the injustices of our society, the inequalities that have made this epidemic so much worse for some than it is for others? And beyond that: what can we do?
Throughout the Spanish Flu epidemic, people came together, desperate to help one another. Health care workers fought a disease they were not remotely prepared to fight. Governments changed, because they had to. Families leant on each other. Volunteers gave their time, and often their lives, to care for the sick. The terrible tragedy of the pandemic brought out the best in many—and the worst in others.
Many of us, exhausted by a year full of quarantines and tragedies, may wish we didn’t have to live through this historic moment. But as JRR Tolkien said in his work of fantasy The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We can only do our best, extend kindness to whoever we can, and be thankful that this time, at least, we don’t have to rely on baking soda and heroin for disease treatment.
Dickin, Janice, Patricia G. Bailey, and Erin James-Abra. “1918 Spanish Flu in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopaedia, March 18, 2020. URL: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/1918-spanish-flu-in-canada
Goldenberg, Susan. “Killer Flu.” Canada’s History, September 11, 2018. URL: https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/arts-culture-society/killer-flu
Jones, Esyllt. “Surviving Influenza: lived experiences of health inequity and pandemic disease in Canada.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, June 22, 2020, URL: https://www.cmaj.ca/content/192/25/E688
“The Spanish Flu in Canada.” Parks Canada. Accessed on March 3rd, 2021. URL: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/res/information-backgrounder/espagnole-spanish