From Manitoba flu to COVID-19, Manitoba centenary looks at pandemic life

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There was no social distancing in the small farming community of Jemima (Mime) Westcott in Manitoba when the Spanish flu hit more than a century ago.

The school stayed in session and its mother provided an oiled cloth to put on her face when needed, said Westcott – now 109 – Thursday.

Tissue was a way to try to keep the virus out of those you thought you had.

“You would breathe eucalyptus,” said Westcott. “It was just a handkerchief that we had in our pockets. “

The Spanish flu was first identified in 1918 and caused the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century.

An estimated 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – were infected with the H1N1 virus, and at least 50 million died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Canada has also been hit hard. According to the Canadian government, about 55,000 people in this country – most between the ages of 20 and 40 – have been killed by the unknown form of the flu.

The disease spread west after arriving in the port cities of Montreal, Quebec and Halifax, and transmission intensified with the war effort as troops traveled by train across the country, according to an article on the Parks Canada Government of Canada website.

Although municipal and provincial authorities have attempted to ban public gatherings and isolate the sick, infection rates have increased. The economy has been crippled and many healthcare workers helping the sick have been infected, the station said.

Westcott did not think his community was particularly affected.

“There was a lady on the edge of town,” she recalls. “We went there to go to school. We used to put our handkerchiefs on our noses. We weren’t sure if its germs spread on the road.

“But she was an older woman and she survived. “

Westcott, who lives in a personal care home in Brandon, Manitoba, is a little hard of hearing now, but remains sharp. She regularly reads the newspaper and follows the progress of COVID-19.

“I would like to think that we will cross it well,” she said. “But so many people died. It’s a terrible flu. “

As of Thursday afternoon, there have been approximately 2.1 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide with more than 140,000 deaths. In Canada, there have been approximately 30,000 cases and nearly 1,200 deaths.

Westcott, who grew up near the small border town of Lauder, Manitoba, is the average child of 11 children. She became a teacher near Douglas, Manitoba, and met her husband at school.

Jemima Westcott

Jemima Westcott is pictured with the late husband Reginald in a family photo. There was no social distancing in the small farming community of Jemima Westcott in Lauder, Manitoba when the Spanish flu hit more than a century ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS / HO

Mime Westcott had five children with Reginald Westcott, who died in 1963.

“I lived on the farm when I was a child,” she said. “I don’t eat too much. I don’t drink much, (only) occasionally. I do not smoke. I take my three meals a day. I still have my porridge.

“I’m not worried, I think that’s the bottom line. “

Westcott mainly stays in his room these days and stays in regular contact with his family by phone and videoconference.

As with other health crises, much has been learned about the impact of the Spanish flu and the country’s response to it. The pandemic led to the creation of the federal Department of Health in 1919 – later renamed Health Canada – and made public health a joint responsibility of the various levels of government.

When asked if she had a message for Canadians on how best to cope with a pandemic, Westcott kept it simple.

“Stay home for one thing,” she said. “(People) don’t have to go out. If everyone does that, how will it spread? “

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 16, 2020.

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