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What the Spanish Flu may teach us about COVID-19

Last Updated Apr 4, 2020 at 2:00 pm PDT

FILE: A medical staffer works at the Santo Spirito hospital in Rome, Monday, March 30, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse via AP)

It is considered one of Canada's defining moments: the fight against the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919

A historian looks back at a pandemic that plagued society more than a century ago

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — “I think there are a lot of lessons from a hundred years ago,” says Neil Orford, co-founder of Defining Moments Canada, an online education resource for students and teachers.

He says there are many parallels between the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 and the novel coronavirus we’re fighting now. “The flu, for all the devastation and the tragedy that it caused, the management of it was actually really quite successful and there were some really heroic efforts that I think we have to pay attention to that have broad similarities to today.”

He says great collaboration went into finding a vaccine for the flu. “In the end, the vaccine wasn’t particularly effective but the effort that was put into it, the research that was gained, was truly remarkable. It was a story from Connaught Labs in Toronto but there were many other laboratories across Canada who all contributed.”

Still, it laid much of the foundation for the healthcare system we know today as well as some lasting impacts on public policy. “The Canadian government established the Canadian Department of Health, individual provinces, I think New Brunswick was the first to establish a provincial department of health,” he explains. “It set the template for the commitment to public health care that Canadians had going right through to the ’60s and what we are proud of today.”

“It is, as we describe of course, a defining moment in our history that for a long time suffered a bit of public amnesia.” The pandemic ended up taking 55,000 Canadian lives; almost as many as the country lost in World War One.

You can find out lesson plans, bibliographies, and other material by clicking on the ‘Pandemic 1918’ button on the main page of Defining Moments Canada.