'The fear is the same' — lessons learned from past pandemics applied to coronavirus

Public health officials working to stop the spread of coronavirus in Canada are applying lessons learned from past pandemics and outbreaks . 

Hundreds sickened in northern Ontario by Spanish Flu in 1918 and Asian Flu in 1957

A notice in the Sudbury Star in October 1918 informs people that all public gatherings in the city are banned during the outbreak of influenza. (The Sudbury Star)

Schools closed.

Street cars halted.

Police handing out tickets for public gatherings. 

This could describe the Chinese cities currently locked down for the novel coronavirus, but it's also what happened in Sudbury in the fall of 1918 with what was called the "Spanish Influenza."

On Oct. 9, 1918, when there were eight confirmed cases in Sudbury, the medical officer of health told city officials that the "situation was in no way alarming" and people should just avoid crowds and kissing.

Three days later, three people had died in Sudbury, the hospital was packed, but the medical officer of health still felt it was "not sufficiently alarming" to close public places.

A few days after that, town officials overruled him and banned any public gatherings, also closing schools, theatres, taverns, churches, public transit and restricting restaurants to only 25 patrons at a time.

In the month that followed, The Sudbury Star reported police officers giving a $25 "crowding" ticket to men who were playing cards and a $25 ticket to an "Austrian" who was caught spitting on the floor of the train station.

Spitting was reported to be very "prevalent" in the railroad hamlet of Cartier, where almost every citizen was said to be infected.

As the fall of 2018 marched on, the pages of the Star featured more and more advertisements for soap and a local clothing store called Stafford's claiming to be "an absolutely sanitary and safe place to do your buying."

The ban on public gatherings was lifted on Nov. 11, the same time the armistice ending the First World War was signed.

50,000 Canadians died of the Spanish Influenza in 1918 and 1919. (The Borealis Gallery )

About 100 died in Sudbury of Spanish Flu. There were 50,000 deaths across Canada, about the same as died in combat during the war. 

About 120 died in Timmins, including a man who shot himself after suspecting he had contracted the flu. 

"Interestingly enough everybody tried to downplay things," says Timmins Museum curator Karen Bachmann. 

"So when you're reading through the newspaper archives... there's one page that will tell you the editor of the newspaper saying things are under control, things are under control. And then the next page, here's a list of all the people that died today. So it was kind of trying to be hushed up a little bit, but everybody knew what was going on."

An ad in the Sudbury Star from 1918 informs readers that the Regent Theatre on Elm Street (where the CBC station is today) is set to re-open after a month of being closed during the outbreak of Spanish flu. (The Sudbury Star )

Mark Humphries, a historian at Wilfrid Laurier University who has written a book on the Spanish Influenza, says the aftermath saw the creation of what today we call Health Canada. 

He says while making comparisons between 2020 and 1918, it's important to know the medical advances of the past century, including antibiotics and hospitals with oxygen supplies. 

"Many people who died in 1918 would have survived today," he says.

"A lot of the panic that exists around Coronavirus today is based on people trying to apply what happened in 1918 to today which of course doesn't make any historical or epidemiological sense."

The century since has seen several similar outbreaks.

The 1957 flu epidemic known as "Asian Flu" sickened some 6,000 people in Sudbury and killed two young people.

The 1968 "Hong Kong Flu" also infected thousands across Canada.

A woman puts on a protective mask to protect against SARS at a wash station at the entrance to North York General Hospital in Toronto in May 2003. (Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press)

The most obvious comparison for novel coronavirus is the 2003 outbreak of a related virus known as SARS that killed 44 Canadians.

Algoma's associate medical officer of health, Dr. Jennifer Loo, says it was a watershed moment for public health thinking in Ontario.

She says there are now strict procedures to be followed by hospitals and paramedics when it comes to isolating patients, as well as instant communication between public health officials and a great understanding of "respiratory etiquette" in the general public.

The one thing Dr. Loo says hasn't changed is how these kinds of outbreaks scare people.

"(We should) allow ourselves to be motivated by fear or anxiety, but then when we make decisions, we should be basing those on good information," she says. 

About the Author

Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to