Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/3/2020 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As thousands of people across Manitoba self-isolate and practise social distancing in an attempt to clamp down on the spread of COVID-19, Manitobans more than 100 years ago were going through much the same thing in the face of the Spanish flu.
The two outbreaks were similar in the wide-ranging impact they had on Brandonites’ lives.
The flu killed approximately 55,000 Canadians just as the First World War came to a close, nearly as many as the 60,000 who died in the war.
Cases at the beginning of the outbreak spread more quickly than today, and Brandon was harder hit, according to The Brandon Sun’s coverage at the time. While there are currently no cases of COVID-19 in Brandon, on Oct. 22, 1918, the Sun reported the city had 55 cases of the Spanish flu, along with three deaths — mostly people from outside the city.
Esyllt Jones, a professor in the department of history at the University of Manitoba, said based on her research there seemed to be less anxiety among the general public in 1918 than there is today. The lack of mass travel meant many people knew about the flu weeks before it arrived in Brandon or Manitoba, so it wasn’t a surprise.
Working from home also wasn’t an option for most, so many businesses stayed open as the virus spread.
"One of the ironies of social distancing measures in that period ... is that while they prevented people from going to church, they still went to work every day," she said.
While more restaurants and stores are closing their doors today, they also closed in 1918 at the beginning of the epidemic.
The Sun reported on Oct. 16, 1918, that social teas and large social gatherings and been banned by the provincial health officer. A small article from that day said the Older Boys Conference had been postponed indefinitely.
A story from Nov. 23, 1918, says there was a ban on public meetings, and places selling food, such as ice-cream parlours and tea rooms, had been forced to close.
Like today, schools and universities shut their doors to reduce people gathering and spreading the illness. The Sun reported that although there were no cases at Brandon College, it had closed classrooms out of an abundance of caution.
City council had also cancelled meetings while there was a ban on public meetings.
By November 1918, there were calls to support the local businesses that had been shut down to slow down the spread of the flu.
"While every theatre owner realized that it was necessary to co-operate with the health authorities in every city, town and community where the epidemic raged in order to do their utmost to stamp out the dreaded disease, great financial loss has resulted in closing the theatres, which loss has been entirely borne by each individual owners and not forgetting the thousands who have been thrown out of employment, and it is urged that the public give their hearty support to the motion picture houses when they open again after the influenza epidemic is checked," an article from Nov. 4, 1918, reads.
Brandon City Council also supported theatre owners at the time and had sent a letter to the province asking for support for the owners and those out of a job. There were also calls for the government to support the many other businesses affected by the outbreak.
The Sun reported that some theatres in eastern cities (the paper did not specify which ones) had reopened, but had fumigated and customers had to wear masks.
By mid-November 1918, flu cases were escalating. On Nov. 14, the Sun reported 23 new cases and eight deaths. Jones said this coincides with an explosion of cases as the flu was spreading more rapidly.
Social distancing did exist at the time, but it was often about quarantining people in their homes, she said. Public health officials would put a sign on the doors of houses where sick people lived. While it did inform the community of where Spanish flu cases existed, Jones said the people living there hated the practice and so officials were hesitant to use it.
One of the differences at the height of the pandemic was that people in 1918 wouldn’t have seen the same shortages consumers are seeing nowadays, Jones said. People didn’t rush out to stockpile toilet paper or canned goods. There was, however, a surge in the price of a funeral as so many people were dying in a short period of time.
A few days later, on Nov. 22, 1918, the Sun reported a "marked decrease" in new cases, down to only 30 new ones in the last day. By that point there were 712 cases in Brandon.
Daily life returned somewhat to normal by mid-December 1918. The sun reported on Dec. 16 that there were still some cases of the flu in Brandon, but the ban on public meetings had been lifted. There was a call-out for volunteers to help look after sick people as teachers were "taking a rest" before school reopened.
When schools did reopen on Dec. 30, 1918, the Sun reported school trustees were happy with the large attendance.
"The flu epidemic came along. Again, all sections of citizens nobly rallied to the call for volunteers to fight the insidious disease. It was the community spirit all the way through. Meanwhile, news came along steadily that Brandon men were being added to the number of dead in France and Flanders. Can it not be said that Brandon has laid solidly and sound the foundations of future greatness. All hail to the New Year," the article reads.
Jones said the swell in volunteers to help the sick during the Spanish flu outbreak is one of the things that marks the period. Hundreds of people tended to the sick, while today many people would be more cautious about getting sick themselves.
Minnie Paterson was one of the Westman residents who took up the call to help people who came down with the flu.
Harvey Paterson, her grandson, said Minnie lived south of Kenton. He remembers stories about the community coming together to help two men who came down with the flu. Minnie personally tended to the sick and brought them food every day while men in the community helped out on their farm.
"She took it upon herself … she would walk every day and take food there. Food that would drop their temperatures and make them feel better. She would give them all sorts of medications that she made up; she knew quite a bit about what would break a fever," he said.
Minnie was also taking care of four of her own children at the time. When she got home, Harvey said, she would hang her clothes outside in the cold to kill any viruses on them and to avoid getting the rest of her family sick.
"While she was working, she made a mask out of cloth over her head. She did that for months and months while she was treating them," he said.
Looking back, Harvey said he’s proud of his grandmother and the work she did. The story has become poignant as Brandon and the rest of the world is in the midst of a new pandemic that echoes the past.
"It was so different, and yet it’s the same. … I just think 102 years ago this happened and now we’re going through the same thing now."
» Twitter: @DrewMay_