New downtown exhibit compares Winnipeg’s COVID-19 response to the Spanish Flu

Click to play video: 'New downtown exhibit compares Winnipeg’s COVID-19 response to the Spanish Flu'
New downtown exhibit compares Winnipeg’s COVID-19 response to the Spanish Flu
It's been three years of COVID-19 in Winnipeg but it's not the first pandemic the city has witnessed. As Global's Iris Dyck reports, Heritage Winnipeg is comparing the city's response to COVID and the Spanish flu, in a new exhibit Downtown. – Mar 26, 2023

A new exhibit in downtown Winnipeg is comparing the city’s response to the COVID-19 virus in 2020 to the Spanish Flu that spread across the world in 1918.

It’s in the Millennium centre and run by Heritage Winnipeg every day until March 31. It is drawing parallels between the two viruses. “There are comparisons, and maybe we learn something for the future,” said Jim Smith, president & historian, of North East Winnipeg Historical Society, Inc.

Smith worked on the project and turned to old Winnipeg papers for clues back at a time when the first world war, not the pandemic, was the top story.

“So at the top, you’d have ‘allies advance 200 yards.’ And below that you’d have ’24 people die in Winnipeg, 200-something new cases’ type of thing, so it was really downplayed.”

The Spanish Flu infected an estimated 750 million people worldwide. The multimedia exhibit details Winnipeg’s response to both, from lockdowns to misinformation to health care.

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“I’d heard stories from my grandfather, he had told me that he was 11 years old when Spanish influenza started,” said Smith.

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“As a Boy Scout, he helped deliver food to people’s houses. People put place cards on people’s houses or at least some people that if one person had it, you couldn’t leave the house.”

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg’s influenza epidemic of 1918-1919'
Winnipeg’s influenza epidemic of 1918-1919

It paints a picture of how much was unknown before viruses were understood, according to Cindy Tugwell with Heritage Winnipeg.

“No vaccine, no modern conveniences, their health care was still stretched, their hospitals were overcrowded. Things we still experience, but not near the level they did.”

This portion of the exhibit immerses viewers in the knowledge of other pandemics throughout history and designer Jeremy Choy said the idea is to really bring the information to life.

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“Understanding the content and figuring out the best way to prototype and develop the best user experience, for the visitors to be educated and entertained at the same time. The goal in mind was to get them to perhaps change their viewpoint or their original opinions on what they had by gaining more knowledge through it from history.”

For Tugwell, it was important to continue the conversation that pandemics are inevitable and look into how people can be better prepared.

“Not just physically, but mentally, because social connectivity and the reason we’re here today is to say that is critical to our overall health is that social connectivity and our connection to our history and our city. The takeaway is in the good times, don’t stop planning. Don’t stop talking about things so that you’re ready when the bad times hit.”

— With files from Global’s Iris Dyck

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