Coronavirus: As Saskatchewan plans its reopening, can history offer lessons?

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Coronavirus: Can history offer lessons to reopen Saskatchewan?
WATCH: What lessons can be learned from the 1918 Spanish flu as Saskatchewan prepares to reopen? – Apr 28, 2020

The world was at war the last time a pandemic, like the once caused by the novel coronavirus, swept across the planet.

The 1918 Spanish flu killed millions of people and 50,000 Canadians, 5,000 of whom were in Saskatchewan.

“It just came on like gangbusters,” said Jeff O’Brien, Saskatoon’s city archivist.

“Almost all the fatalities in Saskatchewan and in Saskatoon are in this little window of just a few weeks in the fall of 1918.”

According to the Saskatchewan Archives, hospitals were overflowing and many businesses were closed.

“For many people, there were dire financial hardships — there was complete ruin,” O’Brien said.

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But despite the apparent similarities between the flu pandemic a century ago caused by the flu and the current one caused by the novel coronavirus, an economist said efforts to reopen provinces and countries in 2020 will not look like those in 1918 — or even the Great Depression.

“The economy wasn’t as integrated as it was a hundred years ago,” Concordia University’s Moshe Lander told Global News.

He said the economy in 1918, and in the decades following, was rooted more in manufacturing and agriculture than it is now.

He said the economic stoppage was so sudden and the economies a century ago so different that a better model for recovery and reopening is a natural disaster.

“The tsunami in Japan a few years back or… Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out a tremendous amount of activity in the Gulf in the US… these types of things would be kind of template for you to shut down for the duration of the storm,” he said.

“And then you slowly try and test to make sure that everything’s in place to get things up and running again. The difference, of course, is that those things only last for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. We’re talking here about months.”

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Besides the economic mismatch, medical historian Erika Dyck said it can be hard to learn applicable lessons from the 1918 pandemic and other disasters because experiencing them can be so traumatic, people rush to return to regular life and don’t record that from which future researchers and public health experts could have benefitted.

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“There’s such a rush to normalize that. I think sometimes we lose the opportunity to memorialize,” she said.

“After a certain point, people do not want to talk about it anymore. They just want things to get back to normal.”

She also said it’s also difficult to pull any lessons from the flu pandemic because it occurred during such a turbulent time — in the aftermath of the most cataclysmic war the world had yet experienced.

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More than 66,000 Canadians died in the First World War and the soldiers who did return had different expectations for the country for which they had fought.

Their expectations, combined with pre-existing labour conditions, created social unrest.

In 1918, Saskatchewan was still recovering from an economic downturn in 1913-14 and was experiencing higher prices but stagnant wages.

“You’ve got all this unemployment, a lot of underemployment, underpaid people and soldiers who are suddenly a lot more political than they had been before and with a desire to make sure their sacrifices of the last four years have been recognized. And so… we had major strikes in Saskatoon in summer of 1918.”

“The combination of things meant that getting the economy back on track also required resolving a number of labour disputes that had been going on for some time,” Dyck said.

As well, the mechanisms available to a government to reopen a province and restart an economy are also very different than they were a hundred years ago.

There was no social safety net in 1918 and the federal government did not provide support packages for businesses or individuals.

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In fact, the efforts to stop the spread of the flu pandemic had no real overarching organization.

“Local boards of health were the ones managing the whole effort, There was no real coordination,” O’Brien said.

“Most of the kinds of support systems that we take for granted today as being government run that centrally administered were actually run by private charities.”

Both Dyck and O’Brien said that ultimately the transformation that came from the 1918 flu, and the end of the war wasn’t economic but social.

“We recognized that the shortcomings of the public health system and we started sort of working out ways to deal with them on a more coordinated and much larger scale.”

He said the seeds of employment insurance and public healthcare were planted during the 1918 flu pandemic.

“There’s very little argument as to whether or not the introduction of Medicare was actually a benefit to the greater good for all Canadians,” said Dyck.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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