Nfld. & Labrador

Pandemic lessons from the colony of Newfoundland in a time of cholera

As the world wonders whether the coronavirus will turn into a pandemic, historical evidence details how the former colony of Newfoundland dealt with fear and prepared for the worst during cholera pandemics of the 19th century.

As the world watches the spread of coronavirus, The Rooms archives hold lessons from the 19th century

An 1832 proclamation calling on the inhabitants to the colony of Newfoundland to take measures to prevent the spread of cholera. While Newfoundland managed to avoid cholera spreading during this time, it was hit during another pandemic in 1854 with at least 500 people dying. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Heidi Coombs reaches into a box labelled "quarantine letters." She pulls out a bound booklet and reads from a proclamation dated July 17, 1832. 

It's the duty, the letter said, "of every inhabitant of this colony to use his best exertions to prevent, if possible, the introduction of the fatal disease."

That fatal disease was Asiatic cholera, which killed hundreds of thousands in the 19th century. At the time of the proclamation, the outbreak came close to this island — hitting both Quebec and Nova Scotia — but didn't land in Newfoundland until later.

As the world wonders whether coronavirus spread will reach pandemic status, snippets of history detailing how the former colony of Newfoundland dealt with fear during that time could help prepare us for social reaction today.

People back then "often talked about diseases in terms of a battle," said Coombs, who holds a PhD specializing in Newfoundland's medical history. "Disease was something evil that had to be combated."

The differences between then and now are vast, but when comparing communications from the 19th century to today, there are similarities researchers can learn from — especially when it comes to finger pointing. 

"A lot of the work I do taking a look at infectious disease in the past, I do find myself saying 'boy, everything that is old is new again,'" said Madeleine Mant, archeology professor at Memorial University. 

"Or maybe there just isn't anything new because of these themes of stigma and blame."

Dr. Madeleine Mant is an Anthropologist of Health and currently a Research Associate at the University of Toronto Mississauga and Adjunct Professor of Archaeology at Memorial University. (Submitted by Madeleine Mant)

Mant says that pattern she's noticed can be termed "othering" — the process of excluding and stereotyping a social group that's perceived as dissimilar to your own.

She gives the first written account of the spread of syphilis in Naples, Italy in 1495 as an example. 

"The Italian folk there referred to it as the French disease, assuming it came from French troops. [And] we have the French calling syphilis the English disease," she said.

The English, meanwhile, call it the French disease — and, alternatively, the Spanish, Italian or Turkish disease.

"It's basically, 'It can't possibly be coming from us.This terrible thing must be somebody else's fault,'" she said. 

Newfoundland of the 1800s was no different in terms of the stigma associated with the illness.

"There was no sewage system in St. John's in 1832. There was this fear that if cholera arrived in Newfoundland it would spread really quickly because the streets were so filthy and there was no sanitation," said Coombs. 

The 1832 proclamation that she found also called for temperance, personal cleanliness and the free ventilation of houses. It called on people to refrain from placing "heaps of capelin, or other offensive substances" near homes. 

Heidi Coombs has a PhD specializing in Newfoundland’s medical history. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"There does seem to be a class aspect to this, because a lot of times the people who would be using capelin for compost for the gardens would be working class people," said Coombs, explaining that back then, people thought disease was spread through rotting substances rather than fecal matter.

On the positive side of things, fears of cholera prompted major health reforms for the colony, including the establishment of a health board and an inspection station at the Narrows for incoming ships — if a ship came from an infected port, it was forced to wait in quarantine to see if any crew were sick before being allowed ashore. 

But as fear pushed for more progressive public health policy, it simultaneously institutionalized class-based shaming. 

"One of the public health measures at the time would have been lyming the houses of the poor. So there was this idea there was more of a chance of disease spreading through poor neighbourhoods," said Coombs. 

Mant agrees. Along with the public cleanup also came a moral one. 

"The idea being that there's this connection to poverty and weakness and dirt ... there's this link that potentially has the threat to public health," said Mant. 

Quarantine letters from the Colonial Secretary's Office 1832-1836. This specific letter is asking for medical supplies for the colony as fears were escalating that a cholera pandemic would soon reach the island's shores. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Speaking about the potential of a coronavirus pandemic, Mant says it's important to look at health messaging within a historical context, keeping an eye on aspects that can take a dark turn. 

"It's always about this idea of morality. Potentially they're sinners, maybe there's something dirty about somebody else's culture," she said. 

Mant gives the example of the coronavirus starting in Wuhan, China. Half a world away, a spew of racist comments are directed at a noodle shop in Markham, Ontario called Wuhan Noodle. 

Locally, Memorial University's president recently issued a statement denouncing xenophobia and racism on campus. It said members of the university community "have been singled out and felt ostracized and mistreated by others" since the outbreak.

Mant says it comes down to personal responsibility. 

"Even if it is declared a pandemic," she said, "it's still a personal responsibility to ensure that we are not spreading misinformation, to ensure that we are still being kind to our neighbours."

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