The Virus of Social Unrest

Pandemics shape societies as much as they do public health practices, exposing rifts and new potential

By Mifi Purvis, ’93 BA

Armed Forces Institute of Pathology/National Museum of Health and Medicine

Pandemics shape societies as much as they do public health practices, exposing rifts and new potential

By Mifi Purvis, ’93 BA

June 22, 2020 •

It’s hard to grasp the scale of a pandemic from the middle. We attempt to flatten the curve to better care for people and buy time for treatments and vaccines. But that curve feels like a colossal roller-coaster. We’re chugging our way to the top, waiting to crest and descend to where we started. But things might look different when we get there.

While COVID‑19 is new, the plagues that have shaped our societies aren’t. In looking back, we glean hints about what might lie out front.

The Black Death arrived in Europe in the mid‑1300s, killing a third of the population. It burned across the continent in a few years, then bubbled up around the globe for hundreds more. In a combination of luck and foresight, some regions mitigated the effects, where others failed.

“In Florence, there was social breakdown,” says Liza Piper, associate professor in the Department of History and Classics, who teaches a course in pandemic disease. Some estimates, Piper says, pin the mortality in Florence at as high as 75 per cent. Nearby Pistoia, however, had a very clear set of rules. “Pistoia restricted travel and changed funeral practices,” she says. “They had a much lower mortality than Florence.”

You’ve been hearing a lot about another pandemic, Spanish flu. But for decades it went unremarked, disappeared into the story of the First World War. The disease was deadlier than the conflict, killing more than 40 million people in the winter of 1918-19. As in Pistoia and Florence, in 1918 officials in St. Louis and Philadelphia dealt with this pandemic differently. Where St. Louis closed schools and houses of worship and encouraged physical distancing, Philadelphia threw a parade, inviting the whole city. Days later, Philly’s hospitals were full. Weeks later, it had registered twice the deaths per capita of St. Louis. The lesson is clear.

According to experts, COVID‑19 may necessitate an awkward dance of test, trace and isolate until research creates a vaccine. It’s nothing new. This was the response to polio, which made frequent summertime forays before that vaccine was developed, says Piper. Children saw the heaviest burden, sometimes suffering paralysis or death. “There were a lot of restrictions around gatherings in summertime, swimming pools closed, kids couldn’t go to the movie theatres.”

But polio epidemics were also instrumental in building social medicare, Piper says. Paul Martin Sr. contracted the viral disease as a child in 1907, as did his son, (later prime minister) Paul Martin Jr., ’12 LLD (Honorary), in 1946. The experiences were formative for the elder Martin who, as national health minister in the mid-1950s, was instrumental in rolling out the then-controversial polio vaccine. It informed his support of milestone bills on the road to medicare.

But socialized medicine doesn’t remove inequity. Indicators of health mark some of us for harsher treatment: age, existing illness, lower incomes, tenuous job security or being an immigrant or Indigenous person. COVID‑19 has put workers in the crosshairs of the bug. History has lessons on that, too.

After the Black Death, Tuscan artisans and farmers agitated for better pay and land ownership. The labour shortage increased the value of their work, hurrying the end of feudalism.

“I wonder if there would have been a general strike in Winnipeg in the spring of 1919 if the city hadn’t just experienced the flu?” asks Kristan McLeod, ’92 BA, ’94 MA, ’04 LLB, managing partner of Chivers Carpenter Lawyers, a firm specializing in labour and employment law. The Winnipeg Free Press reported 1,216 Winnipeggers died of the Spanish flu that winter. By May, the disease had largely burned out, leaving roiling unrest culminating in the strike. “I think a pandemic can have a great equalizing force,” McLeod says, “in that it exposes giant rifts in our system and makes people realize how interdependent we are.”

Piper says research supports that theory. She points to Esyllt Jones’s book Influenza 1918, which argues that supporting each other through the flu was foundational to workers’ resistance during the Winnipeg General Strike. The city was home to around 180,000 people in 1919. As many as 35,000 workers walked off the job; many were immigrants and women. Six weeks later — after a riot, 30 injuries and two deaths — strikers were forced back to work, their grievances mostly unanswered. But the event brought awareness of full-time workers unable to climb out of poverty, according to Piper. It had a unifying effect on Canadian labourers.

In mid-April 2020, there were 38 cases of COVID‑19 at a southern Alberta meat-packing plant, whose union wanted it shut to manage the problem. It remained open as an essential service, eventually closing for two weeks to implement safety features. But by mid-May there were nearly 1,500 cases linked to the plant. These mainly working-class immigrants are bearing the brunt, their jobs making the virus hard to avoid. It all sounds familiar. 

When public health measures weren’t followed in Winnipeg in 1919, Jones writes, “it was because the material realities of working people’s lives made it all but impossible for them to respond to the implications of germ theory in day-to-day living.”

It’s hard to say if the current pandemic will bring the social change of past ones. Friends ask Piper to weigh in. “As a historian I get nervous about predicting the future,” she says. “But globally, there’s inequitable access to robust public health systems. That makes such a huge difference in the course of contemporary epidemics.”

So here we are, hopefully cresting the curve. And what we find at the bottom will surely surprise us, even if it shouldn’t.



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