How will COVID-19 be remembered? For clues, historians have looked at the the impact of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. 

“The history of epidemics often ends when the epidemic ends, but I’ve always thought it was important to look at what happens to people afterwards,” says Esyllt Jones, a professor at the University of Manitoba and as an infectious disease historian.

Jones has written about the impacts of the century-old Great Influenza pandemic in Canada, where 55,000 people died. As well as writing the book Influenza 1918: Death, Disease and Struggle in Winnipeg, she edited a collection of works, Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-20.

Esyllt Jones, a University of Manitoba professor and infectious disease historian, has written about the impacts of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic in Canada. (Submitted by Esyllt Jones)

The profiles of the people who died in each pandemic differ greatly.

In the 20th-century flu, “in the 20-to-40 age cohort, there were some pretty significant familial impacts,” says Jones. 

Jones says there will be familial impacts from COVID-19, “but they won’t be the same ones.

“It won’t be, ‘How do we support women who have lost breadwinners. The familial impacts are going to be around the care of our elders.”

Roaring 2020s?

“There has been conversation about whether we’ll have another kind of Great Gatsby era … like the 1920s,” says Jones, referring to the Roaring 20s in which growth and prosperity were rampant for some.

“This notion … is a little bit of a misunderstanding of the 1920s for the majority of Canadians. We’re very familiar with the poverty of the 1930s, but we tend to discount the poverty of the 1920s.

“There’s a sobering lesson from the post-pandemic period. Many people were advocating for progressive social changes, increases in wages, and better trade union rights from 1919 on. Very few of these things came to pass. It took a few decades for the federal government to really step up.”

A nurse takes the pulse of a patient in the influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C. The Great Influenza was responsible for the deaths of at least 50 million people worldwide. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress/The Associated Press)

First person accounts

There are photographs and newspaper records from the Spanish flu, but relatively few personal accounts from working-class and immigrant families in Canada.

“I actually had a lot of difficulty finding anything like journalling,” says Jones.

In the years following the Spanish flu, much of the public commemoration was directed toward the First World War, according to Jones.

“People who were living at the time maybe didn’t think [the Spanish flu] was all that important in a big public history sense. That damaged the capacity of the society to preserve its memory.”

Jones is working with archivists on how to preserve records from COVID-19, “especially digital media records, which are kind of ephemeral.

“There’s a need to really try to keep track of what people are doing through the pandemic, and not just slide by it when it’s over and not really think or talk about it for more than 50 years.

“You can’t just pull the disease event out of people’s lives and write about it in a narrow way. People’s memory is based on everyday life, not just big public events.”

‘The poor and the marginalized … are usually the ones who are the most affected’ by pandemics, says Lorie Laroche, who teaches the history of health care at the University of Ottawa. (Supplied by Lucie Laroche)

Lessons in public health

Lorie Laroche is a social worker and part-time instructor at the University of Ottawa, says plagues and epidemics “have played a very significant role in the development of health care.”

Laroche teaches the history of health care through the faculty of health sciences, and the Spanish flu is an important component of the course. 

“It was really interesting to see the parallels,” says Laroche. “The poor and the marginalized … are usually the ones who are the most affected by these epidemics.”

Laroche sees similarities in how Canadians are coming together now to fight COVID-19, as they did in 1918-1919 in the battle against the Spanish flu, which “was quicker in killing people and actually killed the most healthy,” says Laroche.

The Spanish flu also helped drive scientific advances so relevant today.

“It really pushed forward studies of virology, epidemiology, improvements in sanitation and vaccinology,” says Laroche. “There were a lot of good things that came out of [the Spanish flu] that are helping us now.”

Guidance on how to prevent Influenza, published in the Illustrated Current News, on Oct. 18, 1918. (National Library of Medicine)

Wearing masks became common during the Spanish flu, and continues today as a prime way to prevent COVID-19 exposure. “Physically distancing and avoiding crowds? All that stuff they discovered” at the time, says Laroche. 

Laroche points out another parallel: the urge to get out of the city into the countryside to escape the worst of the pandemic, and the discovery that travel was one of the ways viruses propagate.

Social isolation during an epidemic didn’t start with COVID-19. There were harmful side-effects of isolation during the Spanish flu, made worse by a lack of a social safety net. 

“Because of the lockdown, the poor and the elderly,” says Laroche. “Some of them didn’t die from the Spanish flu. Some of them died from starvation because nobody was delivering food.”

Men wear masks in Alberta during the pandemic of 1918. (National Archives of Canada)

There is even a record of impacts to mental health during the Spanish flu, according to Laroche.

“Increases in starvation, suicides [and increased] drinking rates.”

And like some during COVID-19, there were those who felt the authorities were overreacting.

“There were even then people who didn’t believe that it was that bad, who believed that it was fabricated, that it was propaganda,” says Laroche. “Same thing as we see now.”

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