Scientist fears lessons from past epidemics now forgotten

A veteran community health researcher warns that Canadians in the fight against COVID-19 are not as prepared — or protected — as they should be, despite the lessons learned in earlier health crises.

Canada needs to do better at protecting health care 'heroes' in fight against COVID-19, U of M prof says

A University of Manitoba professor questions whether past epidemics could have predicted present fears of ventilator shortages. (CBC)

A veteran community health researcher warns that Canadians in the fight against COVID-19 are not as prepared — or protected — as they should be, despite the lessons learned in earlier health crises.

"History is important," said Joseph Kaufert, a professor emeritus with the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba.

"And we have not learned some of the public health lessons that the polio epidemics have taught us."

Kaufert, who has studied the spread of epidemics like polio and cholera, is now watching the coronavirus pandemic play out — and he sees parallels.

Dr. John Alcock, one of Manitoba's lead physicians during the polio epidemic of 1953, seen with a patient in a respirator. Alcock, now deceased, later worked with professor Kaufert in a study on the use of respirators during the epidemics. (CBC)

The first one? The anticipated shortage of respiratory equipment and ventilators that the medical community is bracing for.

It's déjà vu, Kaufert says, after Manitoba's polio epidemic of 1953, where critical care equipment was in critically short supply.

"I think right now, the crisis is very much as it was in '53," Kaufert said. "At one point in the [municipal hospital], they were only one ventilator ahead of the incoming cases who had respiratory paralysis."

Desperate governments recruited the military to "fly ventilators around" as needed, he said. In other cases, necessity bred invention, such as the rocking bed, which relied on gravity to help people breathe as the bed rocked head-to-toe.

"It would mean that people's diaphragm and gastric contents would move up and down as the bed moved up and down, and they would simulate a breath," Kaufert said.

The Canadian military was recruited to deliver respirators and ventilators to hospitals across the country, during past polio epidemics. (CBC)

The polio epidemics came with a lot of unknowns, Kaufert says, like how long the virus would last or what long-term effects would be.

The unknowns also should be factored in today, he says.

"The information is emerging more rapidly, but I think we don't know enough about it," Kaufert says.

Polio survivor Terry Wiens said that epidemic was 'very similar to what's going on now; "let's wait and see what symptoms show up."' (Nelly Alberola/Radio-Canada)

Terry Wiens agrees — and he comes with lived experience, having survived polio in the 1953 epidemic. Today, he sees the same reactive responses to a different viral outbreak, he says.

"Nobody seemed to know how infectious a person would be or how long it would last," Wiens says. "We're seeing some of that now and it's disturbing to me."

Equally disturbing — forgotten lessons when it comes to protecting the front-line health-care workers, Kaufert says.

Lessons, he said, that we should have learned in past ebola outbreaks.

Instead, he's seeing history repeat itself, with health-care workers getting sick.

"There was the whole issue of the risk to health-care workers that we forget about," Kaufert said. "They truly are heroes and we don't do a good job of preparing students and medical schools to understand that role."

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Donna Carreiro

CBC Radio Current Affairs Producer

Donna Carreiro is an award-winning producer and journalist, who has worked for more than 27 years with CBC Manitoba. Prior to that, she was a print journalist for a daily newspaper and local magazines. She is drawn to stories of social justice (or injustice) that give a voice to those who most need one. She can be reached at