While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily closed its doors to the public, the Brandon General Museum and Archives is still finding ways to connect people with local history from afar.
In a time of social distancing, museum administrator Alyssa Wowchuk has taken to social media to tell the story of a long-ago, yet surprisingly relevant part of Brandon’s past: the 1918 influenza pandemic, or "Spanish flu."
"There’s so many people right now making the correlations between the Spanish flu and COVID-19 because it is nearly 100 years apart, and there are so many mirrors to it that it’s kind of insane. But I wanted to bring it down to a local level — you know, this is how Brandon was affected," Wowchuk said.
The 1918 flu pandemic was an unusually deadly influenza virus that ravaged much of the world in the period immediately following the First World War. It’s estimated that the virus infected around one-third of the world’s population at the time and killed between 20 million and 100 million people, including about 50,000 Canadians.
The Spanish flu did not originate in Spain as its name would suggest. While the actual geographic origins of the virus are unknown, it became associated with Spain because that was where news of the virus was first widely reported by the media.
October 1918 is when the Spanish flu first arrived in Manitoba, and nearly every day since the beginning of October, Wowchuk has shared a piece of Brandon history from the corresponding date in 1918 to the museum’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts using the hashtag #spanishflubdn.
Wowchuk’s daily posts often come in the form of old Brandon Sun articles that chronicle the spread of the Spanish flu throughout Manitoba, first in Winnipeg and then in Brandon.
Wowchuk said that Manitoba’s first cases of the virus were reported in Winnipeg on Oct. 8, 1918, in two soldiers who had just returned from fighting in the First World War.
"All these soldiers are travelling all over the world to go back home, and they’re spreading this virus around globally. And then when … families and friends return home, people want to party and celebrate and so we saw another wave come up in spring of 1919."
When it comes to parallels between the Spanish flu pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic we’re living through now, Wowchuk pointed out similarities in both the public-health measures implemented to control the spread of the virus and how local people reacted to those measures.
"Right before Brandon reported cases, they went into shutdown. There was no churches, no theatres, silent film, live or ... any kind of big social gatherings," she said.
People in 1918 struggled to adapt to their new normal and some resisted it, writing letters to newspapers complaining about not being able to go to church or to the movie theatre.
"People were adjusting just as we kind of are now," Wowchuk said.
Wowchuk’s research started with the museum’s own collection, but she soon found herself becoming immersed in the project. Her research eventually expanded to other sources, including the archives of the Brandon Municipal Cemetery. She even made trips to the cemetery to visit the gravesites of people who died from the Spanish flu.
"Honestly, I didn’t think it (would) get this big," Wowchuk said. "I’ve kind of gone down this big rabbit hole now and I thought it was gonna be an easy project."
Through her research, Wowchuk said she has learned more about the individual stories behind the facts and figures associated with the Spanish flu — something she hopes her audience experiences as well.
"You would talk all about numbers and statistics when it comes to this like … how many people died? What’s the number? What was the fatality rate? And it’s like, you are talking about real people who had lives and families and ... they’ll have stories to tell," Wowchuk said. "You start to really develop these stories and (it) gives you a kind of insight into who these people were."
If there’s one thing Wowchuk hopes people take away from the project, it’s that studying history can help us avoid the mistakes of the past and, hopefully, create a better future.
"I think a big factor that we need to you know, looking into that these were real people that suffered and died because of the influenza, (is that) there’s people suffering dying right now because of COVID," Wowchuk said. "We need to show empathy and express that this is a real dangerous thing ... I just want to say (the) takeaways (are) be kind, be empathetic."
Wowchuk said she hopes to wrap up the project by mid-November, after which she plans to compile her posts into a cohesive collection or presentation that the public can access, although she is unsure of the exact form that it will take.
Posts from the 1918 flu pandemic history project can be found on the museum’s social media accounts. The Brandon General Museum and Archives is on Twitter and Instagram at @TheBGMA and on Facebook at facebook.com/brandongeneralmuseum.
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