Spanish Flu in 1918 and COVID-19 in 2020

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Just over 100 years ago, the Province of Ontario, including the Town of Oshawa experienced a public health crisis that resembles today’s COVID-19.  From 1918 – 1920 the Spanish Influenza swept the world and killed 50 million people world wide, taking the lives of young and otherwise healthy adults.  The Spanish Influenza started in February 1918 while the First World War was ongoing and approaching its end, creating the ideal environment for the flu to infect, multiply, and spread rapidly across the globe.  It reached the United States in March 1918, and it reached Canada through troop, hospital and civilian ships sailing from England to Grosse Île.  The Ports of Montreal and Halifax were the main routes of infection into Canada; by late June and early July, it spread across the country via the railway.  According to public health authorities, “The failure to restrict train travel early on was one of the terrible oversights.”   It came in multiple waves. The first wave took place in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of 1918, a mutation of the influenza virus produced an extremely contagious, virulent, and deadly form of the disease. This second wave caused 90% of the deaths that occurred during the pandemic. Subsequent waves took place in the spring of 1919 and the spring of 1920.

Image from the collection of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

In Canada, 50,000 people died, accelerated by complications from infections such as pneumonia.  In Ontario, 300,000 cases and 8,705 deaths were recorded. But these figures likely don’t tell the whole story: medical systems were overwhelmed, meaning that many fatalities almost certainly went unreported; this is evident in the reports that were sent in from local Medical Officers of Health.  The largest percentages of deaths in Ontario from the Spanish Flu occurred in York County which represented 17.3% of the total epidemic deaths. York contained Toronto, the largest city at the time. Carleton County, which included Ottawa, accounted for 5.8% of the deaths, and Wentworth, including Hamilton, had 5.1% of the deaths. No other individual county had more than 5% of the total deaths.  Between 1918 and 1919, Oshawa had a population of approximately 10,000, and there were just over 300 deaths recorded; 84 of those deaths were infants under one year of age.  

Just like today, we tend to think of the young and the elderly as being most at risk, but most of those who died during the Spanish Flu epidemic were between the ages of 20 and 40 — the same demographic already decimated by the First World War. In Canada, the provinces of Quebec and Alberta were the most severely affected, which is one of the reasons archives like the Glenbow Archives in Alberta have a wealth of information related to public health and the Spanish Flu.  

In 1918, the Spanish Flu swept through the Maternity hospital located at Llewellyn Hall, and it was reported that 95% of the babies in the Ward passed away. Unfortunately these numbers were not accounted for or submitted to the provincial board of health as a direct relation to the Spanish Flu, but this may have been the reason why 53 infants under the age of one died that year.  

Provincial Board of Health report, 1919

The following year in 1919, it was reported by Dr. McKay, the medical officer of health for Oshawa, that the town was not greatly affected by the Spanish Flu in 1918, which is indicated by the decrease in deaths attributed to ‘the freedom of the town from the Spanish Flu epidemic.’  When the epidemic hit Oshawa, beds were placed in the armouries to treat the sick, and all churches and schools were closed to prevent spreading.  

Just like today, everyone was encouraged to stay home, however, on November 11, 1918, it was impossible to convince Ontarians to stay home. Despite continued concerns about public gatherings and pleas from politicians to wait until December, people all over the province took to the streets to celebrate the Allied victory and the end of the The Great War.  

Armistice Parade, 1918; image courtesy of the Thomas Bouckley Collection, The RMG

This was our own community celebrating in the streets of Oshawa with the Armistice Parade that took place in November 1918.   It would be the following year, in 1919, when Oshawa and the surrounding communities were hit the hardest by the Spanish Influenza.  Let’s take a lesson from history, and please stay home. 


Resources:

The Report of the Provincial Board of Health Ontario, 1920

The Report of the Provincial Board of Health Ontario, 1905 

Christopher Rutty and Sue Sullivan, This is Public Health: A Canadian History.  Canadian Public Health Association, 2010

Susan Goldenburg, Killer Flu, September 11, 2018. Canada’s History

M. Humphries, Lessons From the 1918 Pandemic: Focus on Treatment, Not Prevention, Globe and Mail, July 24, 2009.

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