The History of Long and Brier Islands

Covid-19 vs The 1918 Spanish Flu

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Brier Island, Long Island, Miscellaneous | 0 comments

Covid-19 has changed our world as we once knew it. It is going to take many years before we get back to a normal world again. Leta and I did this comparison between Covid-19 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 to see what the differences were. This article was first published in a 2020 Issue of our local paper “Passages”.

Timeline of a Pandemic

  • By Leta and Rodney Stark

               At a time when the world is in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has made it easier to look back to previous pandemics that have caused much death, changed the course of human history and left lasting legacies.  The first to come to mind would be the Spanish Flu, the largest pandemic to hit the world, in its modern history. The Spanish Flu held the world captive from 1918 – 1920.  In four waves, the Spanish Flu had infected one third of the world’s population and killed somewhere between 17 and 50 million people.  The first wave, not affecting Nova Scotia, happened in early 1918.  The second wave hit our shores in late 1918, the third in 1919 and the last in 1920.

               The Spanish Flu was an H1N1 Influenza A virus that did not have its origins in Spain at all.  It is thought that due to censorship during the First World War that this name was adopted.  The earliest outbreak of the virus is thought to have been traced back to an Army camp in Kansas and sending men to Europe at the time, outbreaks then appeared in France.  To keep moral high and not wishing to appear weakened by the virus, allied censorship chose to make it appear that the flu originated in neutral Spain and the name stuck.  The pandemic spread through Europe and then when the soldiers returned to North America they brought the virus back home with them. 

                                     Source: Wikipedia

               The Spanish Flu made its first appearance in Nova Scotia in Belle Cote, Cape Breton, where it claimed the life of a 26 year old woman on September 1, 1918.  In the next two weeks the virus took nine more lives in the area.  In the small town of Petit de Grat there were nine funerals in one day, four victims from one household.  On September 11, 1918 the first death in Halifax was recorded, a baby boy succumbed to the virus.  On September 22, 1918 a ship with 500 American soldiers docked in Sydney, many of the men already sick and dying of the illness.  This brought the influenza to full force in Cape Breton.  September 23, 1918 the first case appeared in Yarmouth, a fisherman who later died, had returned home from Gloucester, Mass.  At the time many ships were in harbour in Halifax with outbreaks onboard. From these cases it spread around the province and across Canada like a wildfire. Locally, the first case in Digby showed up in the fall of 1918.   The issue of the Digby Courier of October 15, 1918 tells of a lady from Riverdale who had been sick only a few days and died of bacterial pneumonia as a result of the virus. In Culloden, near Digby, Mrs Augustus VanTassel died on December 13, 1918 and two days after her funeral two of her children were laid to rest beside her.  Entire families were being decimated. The Digby Courier stated in its Culloden section that “The flu has made its appearance in Culloden and is visiting at most every home”.

               In October 1918 prevention measures and ads for germicidal soaps and liniments were showing up in the Digby Courier. 

       Source: Digby Courier October 11, 1918

More preventive measures were also starting to be implemented, closing public venues such as schools, churches and the theatre.  In the Digby Courier of December 6, 1918 it was reported that there had been a meeting of the Board of Health and it was decided to keep these venues closed for an indefinite time.

  Source:  Digby Courier November 29, 1918

The Digby Courier of December 20, 1918 stated that the spread seemed to be slowing down, there had not been any new cases in the past number of days and they were going to reopen some gathering spots again on a limited basis.  Churches would be opened, but not Sunday School.  High school would be opened, but not the lower grades. Outdoor venues, like the skating rink would be opened.  It was also decided that even though the teachers had not been able to work due to the closures and teachers themselves, contracting the sickness, they would still be paid. 

Through 1919 and in to 1920 there were still sporadic mini waves that went through the area.  Deaths were still being reported but only once in a while.  Not many towns and villages were left untouched.  Locally, Dr. A. F. Weir was our resident doctor and must have been almost superhuman to have brought our villages through the pandemic.  He and the local newspaper were but the only sources where our residents could gain knowledge of preventatives or treatments. 

     Source: Digby Courier, November 29, 1918

Looking back on what people were going through at the time it makes you wonder how anybody survived at all.  They did not have antibiotic or antiviral drugs.  No intensive care units in the hospitals or ventilators. Some treatments used in the day were Aspirin, Quinine, Arsenics, Digitalis, Strychnine, Epsom Salts, Castor Oil and Iodine. Just before the Spanish Flu hit Nova Scotia the province was still reeling from the Halifax Explosion of December 1917.  When the pandemic hit the world was in conflict in Europe, Smallpox, Typhoid Fever and Tuberculosis were also present and in the case of T.B., very prevalent.

Some legacies of this time are still evident today.  More hospitals were built, more time and effort went in to developing vaccines.  In Digby there was a mandatory general vaccination program put in place for smallpox and it later became mandatory across the county.  Most of us older residents still carry the scar on our left arms from these.  Eradicated years ago, the vaccinations are no longer mandatory.

The following is a map obtained through the Nova Scotia Museum showing the locations that experienced death during the pandemic.  The pandemic lasted in Nova Scotia from September 1918 until April 1920. In total 2,265 people perished in Nova Scotia, 90 in Digby County.  Many of the older graveyards in the province will have gravestones marked with the fact that those lying there died from Influenza.

The Spanish Flu made its trip around the world and every county had its own form of treatment.  This interesting list of “Dos and Don’ts” is from New Zealand.


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