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Looking to the Past: Jackman-Atkinson

April 11, 2020 8:16 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press


In this illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-CDC via AP)

Imagine you want to go to the movies with your friends, but you can’t, because all the theatres are closed. Everything is closed. This could have been written about today, but it wasn’t.

In high school biology, one of our major assignments was a research project and presentation. We were randomly assigned our topics and I was given the 1918 flu pandemic. While I don’t have the project anymore, the opening of this column is what I should have used to start my presentation, according to my teacher. While the lesson that stuck with me was more about writing than the details of the flu, this seems as good a time as any to look at the deadliest pandemic in recorded history.

From 1918 to 1920, a new strain of influenza spread around the world. By the time it was done, about 500 million people had been infected and at least 50 million were dead. In Canada, the death toll was about 55,000 people, most of them between the ages of 20 and 40.

The ease of international travel we know today was unknown in the early 20th century, but for one event— World War I. The war — which ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918 and a death toll of about 8.5 million soldiers — created the perfect conditions to spread the disease. Of unknown origins, it was first observed in soldiers in the spring of 1918. The close confines of trench warfare made ideal conditions for the virus to spread among soldiers. Then, once the war was over, the flu spread on the ships that took the soldiers home and then with them across each country.

In the fall of 1918, the second and most deadly wave of the pandemic hit. Additional waves took place in the springs of 1919 and 1920.


In planning a response to COVID-19, government officials are looking to the 1918 pandemic for lessons. Just like today, in 1918, public health departments shut down gatherings and isolated the sick. In the United States, gauze masks were distributed to be worn in public, stores weren’t allowed to hold sales and funerals were limited to 15 minutes. In Canada, containment was ineffective and the rates of infection grew. As more workers became infected, the economy became paralyzed.

In Canada today, we had some warning and time to act. It looks like we will be spared the economic impact of a death toll similar to that experienced a century ago. But what about the economic impact of preventative closures?

The 1918 pandemic may have some lessons on that was well. At the end of last month, Sergio Correia, of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System; Stephan Luck, of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; and Emil Verner, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper on the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions undertaken during the 1918 pandemic.

In 1918, much like today, there was a patchwork of different responses at the city and state levels in the United States. What the researchers found was that cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively didn’t perform worse and, if anything, grew faster once the pandemic was over. This means that not only did actions like quarantines and closing non-essential businesses result in fewer deaths, they also helped mitigate the pandemic’s economic toll. Overall, from 1919 to 1923, those areas that implemented more restrictive measures, over a longer time, saw an increase in manufacturing employment, manufacturing output, bank assets and consumer durables relative to those that didn’t and were harder hit by the pandemic.

The time to get back to pre-COVID-19 normal will be measured in months, maybe even years for some activities. In the short term, we know there will be economic pain, there already is, but the actions we have taken to slow the progression of the pandemic might not only result in more lives saved, but also reduce the pandemic’s longer-term impact on the economy.