By Jensen, Randy on March 20, 2020.
Lethbridge has faced a pandemic before and came out stronger because of it, says Lethbridge Historical Society president Belinda Crowson.
Just as the horrors of the First World War came to an end, a war which killed an estimated 20 million people worldwide, an even greater horror descended on humanity, the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
“You have to remember the fall of 1918 was the ending of the First World War after four years,” explains Crowson. “In the fall of 1918 Lethbridge residents became aware the Spanish Influenza epidemic was coming into Lethbridge. Dr. Leverett George DeVeber, who was the medical officer of health at the time, writes articles in the newspaper at the time telling people what to expect and telling people how to deal with it as it comes. They are trying to warn people in advance, but on Oct. 11 we get our first couple of patients in Lethbridge who have it. A few days later they go from one or two patients up to 45 patients. And in 106 days between Oct. 1918 and April 1919, 129 people will die in Lethbridge.”
Thanks to the City’s leadership at the time, and a great local health-care system response, the effects of that deadly flu outbreak were far less severe here than in other communities, but that did not come without some mis-steps early on.
“Certainly today we see a lot of the same responses that people are seeing now,” Crowson says. “We actually had the City go into a State of Local Emergency, and they shut down the city for two days so nobody can come in or out. That actually created a lot of additional hardships. Imagine if you were a coal miner who left Lethbridge to go to his shift at Hardieville just outside of town to work in the mines, when you try to come home at the end of the day you actually can’t get back into your own city.
“They only kept that for two days, but they also met trains outside of the city, locked the outside of the trains, and had them go through Lethbridge and unlock them on the other side so people couldn’t come into the community. They were also looking for nurses. They were limited in the number of trained nurses they had; so they were looking for home nurses.”
There was also a lot of misinformation and rumours flying around the community as people tried to come to grips with the crisis, says Crowson.
“What we saw then, as now, a lot of people coming up with weird, quack medicines for how they thought they could get through it. But in the end it was good nursing and good medical care that was what got people through.”
Despite the fact our medical system is far more advanced today, says Crowson, the public response to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is similar to what it is now. Public theatres, schools and recreation facilities were closed and people were asked to stay at home as much as they could.
“Dr. DeVeber, who was also a senator at the time, kept putting out information similar to what you see now telling people what to expect and what was happening,” she explains. “They also relied heavily on the medical system. One of the things they did was set up temporary hospitals. By the Galt Hospital they put up tent hospitals with wooden floors, canvas tents with a stove in the middle. They also set up one at Wesley Hall beside Southminster Church they were prepared to use as needed. So there was a lot of planning.”
First responders also put in heroic efforts to shield the community from the worst effects of the crisis.
“At that time, the police chief was also the fire chief at the same time because there were labour shortages during the First World War,” explains Crowson. “There were separate fire and police officers, but we had the same chief for both. So connecting emergency services was easy because you only had one person to speak to. And certainly the police were active at this time in making sure that panic did not ensue in the community.”
And then, as now, says Crowson, medical personnel took the most significant risks as they struggled to help those who were sick and prevent the outbreak from spreading. Many would end up becoming casualties of the disease themselves.
“One of the well-known stories of that time was the Ripley family,” Crowson says by way of example. “At the end of the war the three young children were orphaned because the dad died during the war, and mom died nursing people through the epidemic.”
And the community’s most vulnerable were at greatest risk from the outbreak.
“There were a lot of people coming home from the war having suffered lung problems during the war (due to poison gas attacks),” explains Crowson. “So there were a lot of people quite susceptible to the influenza outbreak at that time.”
Crowson says people of the past were more used to dealing with epidemics like smallpox, measles and other diseases because they were more common. She feels there are many lessons from this period in history which people in Lethbridge should draw on today as they face the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s all about finding the doers,” she says. “Critics might be loud and annoying, but they don’t achieve anything. So get connected with the doers in life, the ones actually making plans, the ones who are actually taking care of their neighbours. Those are ones who throughout everything, whether we are in crisis or not, make the world better. Those are the people you want to support and encourage in this current crisis.”
“The important thing right now is to take care of our community,” Crowson adds. “Buy local when you can, take care of your neighbours, check on each other and be good citizens. We do eventually come through these things, and every time we do we learn more and do better.”
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