Pandemic Politics

Many question the steps Canada took to get rid of the Influenza Pandemic. After all much of its impacts were shadowed by the vast death that accompanied the First World war as mentioned in the second section of this website. However, we must keep in mind the political agenda that has associated itself with this time. As the influenza broke out the war was still in full throttle thus in an attempt to keep the people in the war effort, the disease and its effects were hid. None the less the government attempted to find a remedy to the new disease. A letter exchange between A.CHawkins and Dr. Montizambert highlights the emergence of the disease in Halifax during September 1918 and the necessary precautions they will have to use to stop the spread. In this case they used a lonesome island to quarantine the crew the best they could. This island would become very popular in the years to come as more and more sailors came back sick. Canada had an ocean dividing herself from the main brunt of the disease. How did other countries fair against the unstoppable force of the Flu? 

 Image: Emergence of the disease in Halifax during September 1918.


Image: Medical vehicles, commonly referred to as lorries abroad, posing for a picture before a long day of work. 

We must look outside our borders to evaluate the true threat of this disease. We are an ocean away from the main source of spread, the trenches. Thus, we can only imagine the true horror that had befell the citizens of other countries. New Zealand was overwhelmed with cases as Charlotte Benette wrote in her text “Now the war is over, we have something else to worry us”: New Zealand Children’s Responses to Crises, 1914–1918. This article details the spread and impact of the 1918 Influenza on the population more specifically the children of New Zealand. One exert from her article speaks of Francis Fitzgerald, ten years old in late 1918, he recalled that during the pandemic: “They used to wrap their corpses up in canvas and just put them on lorries … they’d [go] down the town hall to the fumigation and we used to run through this fumigation and out again and we thought it was great fun”. As you can see from the detailed memory provided above, the youth were unaware of the impact of the disease. How much of this can we contribute to the portrayal of this plague to the masses? 

Influenza in the eyes of the politically elite had to be an afterthought. Especially with the war in Europe ragging on. With pressure from the mother land, Great-Britain, to support the war effort with more troops. They had their hands tied. As the demands to do something about this mysterious disease became louder, the government could no longer play the disease off. In the image to the right we see a letter exchange written by W. Keane Small, the acting British consul, to Sir Robert L. Borden with the department of external affairs highlighting the emergence of the disease on October 8th and where it spread the most i.e. army camps. This letter is super important in detailing the exposure of the disease, as more are affected it begins to effect the war effort. The war ended on November 11th less than a month away from when this letter was written but we must keep in mind that the camps were used as staging grounds to redistribute the soldiers back to their homes. The masses were largely left in the dark when it came to the Spanish Influenza. What kind of a toll could this have had on the economy? 

Image:  Letter exchange written by the acting British consul the department of external affairs highlighting the emergence of the disease on October 8th and where it spread the most. Dated October 18 1918. 

Image: Man stands in front of a closed theater, 1918.

It’s difficult to estimate the damage the disease caused primarily because it persisted after the First World war. A period that historically represents an economic boom. This time it was no different as many countries were as prosperous as they have ever been. If we focus on an article written by Ben Strassfled, “Infectious Media: Debating the Role of Movie Theaters in Detroit during the Spanish Influenza of 1918,” we can more closely see the impacts the influenza had on businesses, primarily movie theaters. This article examines the impact of the Spanish Influenza of 1918 on the film industry through a focus on Detroit’s response to the pandemic. Beyond just the major economic hit felt by the industry – with much of U.S. production, distribution, and exhibition coming to a standstill for months – the pandemic catalyzed a debate over the role of cinema in society. On one side of this debate were those who saw movie theaters as little more than venues for mass entertainment, and therefore easily closed in the face of a health crisis. On the other side were those who argued that cinema was now a respectable institution, and therefore one that might be used for educational purposes in the fight against influenza. Shaded by the prosperity of the First World war, only a few companies suffered gravely from the Influenza’s impacts. How much of these impacts can we contribute to political alienation? 

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic killed millions worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the United States. In the article “Pollution, Infectious Disease, and Mortality: Evidence from the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic” the focus is on other contributions that could have affected the death toll. They suspect that air pollution had an impact on pandemic mortality along with factors related to poverty, public health, and the timing of onset. As you can see extensive research was done on the possible outcomes to the disease. However, it is important to note that very little research has been done on the political impact of the disease. Sir Robert Borden was elected in 1917 as the leader of the unionist party. It comprised of mostly past conservative members with a notable amount of past liberal members as well. This as a result of fierce battle of forced conscription. In 1921, the liberals run by Lyon Mackenzie King win the elections. Four years were up and the people decided they needed a change. As you can see the political and economic landscape were touched by the pandemic. Although it is difficult to estimate the amount of repercussions the disease had on the people primarily because of the First World war. 

Image: Sir Robert Borden

HIST1P50 is grateful to Co-Operative Education and Work Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada for its support of this project. We are also indebted to our community partners, the St. Catharines and Welland Canal Museum, The Niagara Falls History Museum, the Lincoln Museum, and the Nelles Manor Museum. Thanks also to the Co-Op Office at Brock University.

All content created by the students of HIST1P50, "Co-Operative Historical Projects" at Brock University.

All images sourced from Library and Archives Canada, the Archives of Ontario, and Defining Moments Canada.