Mark Osborne Humphries is the author of The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada, an associate professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.
In the fall of 1918, Canada was already at war when a virulent new strain of influenza known as the Spanish flu killed as many as 50,000 here and 20 million people worldwide. It is tempting to look back on past struggles as we face a new foe, but as a historian of both the 1918 flu and war, I fear we may be learning the wrong lessons from history.
This is not the first time Canadians have tried to suppress a pandemic. In 1918, we banned public gatherings, quarantined people, restricted businesses and closed schools. Saskatchewan and Alberta went the furthest, mandating that people wear masks in public and, in some cases, quarantining whole towns. In contrast, Ontario took a more hands-off approach. There were no provincially mandated closings (many municipalities did so on their own), but personal hygiene and cleanliness were encouraged. There are certainly examples from 1918 to support physical distancing, but the evidence of its effectiveness is actually mixed.
A critical difference, of course, is that in 1918, no one went nearly as far as we have today. This is remarkable because wartime governments had more powers under the War Measures Act than they might today under the Emergencies Act. After four years of conflict, Canadians were also compliant, familiar with hardship and tolerant of a variety of interventions unfathomable to modern Canadians. There was also no Charter. Yet no government tried to restrict public life for more than a few weeks in the fall of 1918 and the pandemic was greeted with remarkable calmness.
While it is tempting to compare the novel coronavirus to the 1918 flu, similarities are superficial. According to the Ontario government’s numbers, in each of the next two years COVID-19 will likely kill between 10 and 52 Ontarians out of every 100,000 living in the province. In comparison, the Spanish flu killed about 620 of every 100,000 in 1918 alone, making it somewhere between 12 and 62 times more deadly. Thankfully, we took early action against COVID-19, likely reducing the death rate substantially.
Although governments have been tight-lipped, our initial strategy to fight COVID-19 was almost certainly based on an Imperial College London model that informed policy makers across the West. Most Canadians may not realize that this approach calls for a 12 to 18 month lockdown. Yes, 12 to 18 months.
Is that realistic? The Imperial College epidemiologists no longer think so. John King – a British Lord and former governor of the Bank of England – has even warned that an extended lockdown may lead to rebellion.
History tells us that there are limits to the sacrifices people will endure, even in wartime. While it is true that many Canadians willingly served their country in the past, we sometimes forget that our nation’s conflicts have also been highly divisive. Governments have had to resort to conscription and even shot protesters in the streets. Lord King’s warning also applies to us.
Around the world, governments and experts are beginning to contemplate the struggle’s next phase, one that gets us back toward normal life. Canadians now need to do the same.
If this is indeed war, we need to treat it as such. We need to talk honestly about its costs, the sacrifices that we can and cannot endure, and what we want the "postwar” world to look like. We can do so openly because this enemy doesn’t have spies among us, so there is no need for secrecy. This is essential as we need to be brutally realistic and that may frighten decision-makers.
We are only in the third week of a growing lockdown, but already the costs of social isolation are being felt not only in our battered economy, but in everything from child welfare to mental health, domestic violence and a host of other areas. We must do all we can to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19, but we cannot ignore those victimized by our attempts to help indefinitely. This is an inequitable crisis and the relatively wealthy and well established will emerge from it in much better shape than the poor, the disadvantaged and the young. Over the coming weeks, the costs of lockdown and these tensions will only increase.
What Canada needs now is a true war plan, one that has a clear, realistic and achievable exit strategy. Difficult decisions need to be made and that requires true openness and transparency, a commitment from governments to seek the best data possible and a willingness to admit mistakes. Governments need to listen to public-health officials, but also consult psychologists, experts in child development, social workers and economists. A real war plan must look at the big picture, not just what is happening on the battlefield.
Even if the worst estimates prove true, more than 99.9 per cent of Canadians will survive. To keep them on side, governments must explain the circumstances that will end this lockdown and allow us to declare victory. But what we cannot afford is a Pyrrhic victory that vanquishes the virus but destroys the very society and way of life we are fighting to preserve.
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