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How To Survive Plagues and Pandemics

Summer 2020 Newsletter

FoRC historian Carole Black reminds us: To everything, there is a season. Ecclesiastes tells us, that which is, already has been

FoRC Historian Carole Black

Pandemics have recurred many times over the centuries and bear some eerie resemblances to our current situation in 2020. From 1346 – 1353, the Black Death swept through the Middle East and Europe. It was bubonic plague, with a second deadly pneumonic form. In the absence of scientific knowledge, people were fatalistic. It was seen as an Act of God to punish sinners, or as a turn of Fortune’s Wheel, which could bring down the mighty or the meek without warning.

It was said one-third of the world’s population had died. In Britain, economic circumstances and demographics changed dramatically. The feudal system collapsed.
The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 saw thousands on the march demanding change and better lives.

In 16th Century England, the plague visited often, causing the closing of theatres and entertainments. In Stratford-upon-Avon in 1563, the year before William  Shakespeare was born, the register notes “hic incepit pestis,” here began the plague. It is a sobering thought that the theatre world might have lost the works of Shakespeare with one ill-chanced flea bite.

A family, and their cat, during the time of the Spanish Flu, 1918-1920. “Obey the laws. Wear the gauze.”

The Spanish Flu of 1918 brought a level of contagion not seen since the Black Death. It resulted in millions of deaths worldwide and about 55,000 in Canada. (In comparison, there were about 60,000 deaths in the whole of the First World War.) It arrived in Canada with returning troops. Labrador, Quebec and First Nations Reserves were particularly hard hit.

In Toronto, theatres and movie houses were closed, gathering places were shuttered. People were ordered to wear masks made of gauze. “Obey the laws. Wear the gauze.” Fines were in place for those who did not comply. Children were orphaned, the work force was reduced, businesses lost profits — the Canadian economy was

The federal government founded the Department of Health in 1919. From then on, public health was the responsibility of all levels of government.

I can vividly remember my mother’s fear of polio when I was a little girl. People avoided swimming pools and beaches and we went to the CNE on the morning of opening day, “while it’s clean.” Everyone knew that even a president of the United States might contract the disease.

Then a miracle occurred: a vaccine. We all received it at school, no questions asked, and as time passed, polio was eradicated, and forgotten.

Now, in 2020, we mourn the loss of our freedoms and favourite entertainments… but history will repeat itself and good times will return.