Lessons of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 for the COVID-19 pandemic

In 1918, that Ottawa was largely outside the loop.

Lessons of the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 for the COVID-19 pandemic

One sharp distinction in Canada between the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 (which later research indicates likely originated in China, more improbably Kansas, but not Spain) and today’s COVID-19 pandemic was the role of the Government of Canada in Ottawa.

Today, the government, prime minister, minister of Health, and chief public health officer are at the centre of the national response, coordinating and consulting with their provincial counterparts and municipal administrators or health authorities. In 1918 this was not the case.

Provincial and municipal jurisdiction and responsibility for health care and public health meant, in 1918, that Ottawa was largely outside the loop. The result, in part, was a lack of co-ordination across Canada and the absence of a national response in a thorough-going sense.

In fact, from November 1918 until May 1919 Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden was either in London leading the Canadian delegation for the Peace Conference following the Armistice ending the Great War (WWI) or preparing for and attending the meetings in France leading to the Treaty of Versailles, where the government of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, preferring to treat the Dominions as without interest of their own, was an obstacle.

The Borden government did bring an end to conscription, in part because and when the provincial government in Quebec represented conscription as a vehicle for transmission of the flu to the civilian population, but the role of Ottawa was secondary to the provinces.

For that reason, apparently, Eileen Pettigrew in The Silent Enemy: Canada and the deadly Flu of 1918, states that she found almost nothing relevant to the subject in the Borden papers and in the Public Archives concerning the national response to the emergency for which she states the government could not have prepared or expected. Provincial and municipal authorities were the chief means of public response, and as seems to have been the case, were hampered by the lack of an available coordinated national strategy or measures.

In the late 1980s I spent several months researching the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic with the objective of applying for an SSHRC or Canada Council Grant on the subject. The lead researcher, on paper, was Dr. Bruce Bowden, who was then setting up the Public History Program offered by the Department of History at The University of Western Ontario. Much of the initial research was conducted in the City of London, Ontario, archives and in scientific literature contemporary to the epidemic in public health, medical research, in regional and other archives. The model for the research proposal was based on my previous extensive research considering the material and intellectual response to earthquake as natural disaster in early modern Europe and treated the approach to the primary documents along lines taken there where the epidemic corresponded to similar discreet, itinerant phenomena with societal and intellectual affect corresponding to the state of knowledge in the medical sciences and in public policy at the time.

While we did not finding funding for the project, the role of the national government as the lead in developing a national strategy today and in coordinating the national response within the Canadian concept of federalism which eschews “states rights federalism” and provincialism elsewhere could not be more clear.

Brian Marlatt

Honeymoon Bay


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