Saskatoon

Sask. anthropologist says many lessons to be learned between 1918 flu pandemic and COVID-19

As Saskatchewan continues to deal with the effects of COVID-19, one professor says there's much to be learned from another pandemic in the province nearly 100 years ago.

Professor says women continue to bear brunt of family work, school closures create disruption

Nurses and teachers working as volunteer nurses during the Spanish flu epidemic at an isolation hospital in Lloydminster in 1918. (Glenbow Archives)

As Saskatchewan continues to deal with the effects of COVID-19, one professor says there's much to be learned from another pandemic in the province nearly 100 years ago.

The Spanish Flu killed hundreds of people in the province between 1918 and 1920, and forced the closure of schools, theatres and dance halls.

"Obviously, the first similarity across these pandemics is disruption," said Pamela Downe, a faculty member in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan.

"Everyone's lives are disrupted when there is an outbreak of any infectious disease and especially when it becomes an epidemic or a pandemic, people's lives feel as though they're turned upside down."

Downe's work specializes in studying epidemics, including the polio epidemic that ravaged through communities in the first half of the 20th century.

She said there are many parallels between the 1918 pandemic and today. For one thing, schools across the province were cancelled for about two months during the Spanish Flu outbreak.

Caregiving fell to women

Downe said women have been responsible for performing most of the heavy lifting.

"The caregiving responsibilities from 1918 onward have been done predominantly by women," she said.

"When you look at 1918 influenza, when schools were closed, it was the mothers who were taking the responsibility of calling the teachers, ensuring that students were keeping up on their studies. A similar kind of thing in the 1930s polio outbreaks across the country."

She said women were also responsible for setting up community kitchens, a community-based program where meals would be delivered to sick families.

"This was not a government program. The government was actually fairly slow to respond," she said.

"It really wasn't an accident. It's a kind of collective care I think that we need today."

Lesson in embracing public health orders

Guidance on how to prevent Influenza, published in the Illustrated Current News, on Oct. 18, 1918. (National Library of Medicine)

Downe also believes the public should take a lesson from how the public embraced health orders, rather than showing the skepticism seen today.

"There's a real sense of antagonism between public health orders and the public good and individual and personal well-being," she said.

"I think that sense and dedication to collective care is something that I would like to see revived." 

now