Are you keeping perspective? That’s one of the best ways to deal with any crisis.

Sometimes, that means thinking about the overall state of affairs, and what ultimately matters most.

Yes, COVID-19 is overwhelming when you consider the rapid spread of the illness, and the massive impacts on economic and community life. Yet if you and your family members are well, coping and staying safe, that’s something. Everything, really.

That’s not the only way to judge a situation. Comparing it to something else also offers perspective.

It’s instructive in the midst of this pandemic to look back at media coverage of another: the Spanish flu of a century ago. How did we communicate and understand that one?

We’ve been here before – and in far worse ways.

“Help stamp out this dread disease”

Over three waves, between the spring of 1918 and the winter of 1919, the Spanish flu infected some 500 million people globally. It killed perhaps 50 million (or more), including 55,000 Canadians.

Back then, the disease initially spread east to west across Canada. This was during World War I. Many Canadian troops, infected already, arrived home at the port cities of Halifax, Quebec City and Montreal. These soldiers then travelled west by train, carrying the virus to other communities.

In today’s pandemic, travel has been an accelerant too (before community spread), with early Canadian cases traced mostly to travel from the U.S. (not China, as some might assume).

Check newspaper accounts of 1918, and you’re struck by many other parallels.

Front pages of the time educated Canadians about symptoms, provided instructions on making a mask, and offered timely advice: isolate those who are ill, disinfect common surfaces and wash hands frequently.

newspaper ad asked “Mr. Citizen” to do his part to “help stamp out this dread disease”.

Local authorities provided public notices of closures: schools, courthouses, churches, theatres and “moving picture houses”. Hospitals filled. Public funerals were banned. Sports were cancelled too, like the last games of the 1919 Stanley Cup finals.

In the October 19, 2018 edition of the Toronto World, a city alderman called on the medical health department to draft women as “flu nurses” from the ranks of school teachers, and store and factory workers. They’d be paid their normal wages plus an extra allowance from the city or province.

The same article raised the idea of pharmacists being allowed to sell alcohol “to relieve the public from the strain of having to stand in line for hours at a liquor vendor’s.”

There was no vaccine or effective treatment for the Spanish flu. Newspapers reported on folk remedies (a teaspoon of salt dissolved in a glass of hot water, hot foot baths).

They were also filled with prominent ads for medicinals, like eucalyptus oil, camphor, Iceland moss syrup with tar (“the benefits will be a surprise to you”), and something called Celmo (“goes down deep where the germs lie”).

Maybe not so different from people today touting unproven COVID-19 therapeutics like hydroxychloroquine. Or one moron suggesting that we ingest bleach.

Then, as now, there were suggestions of ways to stay in fighting shape. Today, it might be a social media alert about an online workout. In 1918, it was a newspaper advertisement for a bicycle, so a boy “can get out and fill his lungs with purse fresh air”.

With people in lockdown and yearning to stay connected (or distracted), the communications infrastructure was stretched. In 2020, some worry about WiFi and Zoom capacity. A 1918 ad in the Ottawa Citizen from Bell Telephone urged the public to curb their calls:

“The volume of telephone calls has greatly increased. So many people are ill at home that the telephone has been used continuously and the load of extra calls on our depleted operating force has been very heavy. Please keep this extraordinary situation in mind and use the telephone only when absolutely necessary.”

The lasting impact?

It was an extraordinary situation, but it passed. The damage done by the Spanish flu was enormous, and led to some needed reforms. The federal government was criticized for not giving local public health authorities enough resources and coordination. That led directly to the founding of the Department of Health in 1919.

How will we bounce back from COVID-19? What will be its lasting impact? That script remains unwritten. But as the years went on after the Spanish flu, the after-effects didn’t linger in ways we might imagine.

In September 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the outbreak, the Canadian Press looked back on the Spanish flu. Despite the toll it took, it wasn’t overly prominent in the history books. The CP article quoted historian Alfred Crosby, who wrote a 1976 book called America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918.

“If I hadn’t researched and written a book myself, I’d want to look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica to find out whether it really happened,” said Crosby. “For me, that’s the most mysterious thing. The vagaries of the virus, we’ll understand them eventually. And we’ll understand how flu epidemics work. But we’re never going to understand how the hell did we have something that killed millions and millions of people and then we said ‘Oh, well’ and went on to the World Series or something. It’s impossible. And yet it’s true.”

We’ve been here before.

When you’re in the eye of the storm, it can be hard to have perspective. There is no end date. The recovery – and we’re not near it yet – will be painful for many. High numbers of people will suffer greatly, especially those that were already vulnerable.

It may seem now that life will absolutely change after COVID-19. Except if it doesn’t.

Who knows. Still, perspective should teach us that this coronavirus emergency is a blip. That one day we’ll reflect on this time, or historians will, and see that things returned to normal at some point. That may seem impossible now. But odds are that it’s true.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

May 6, 2020


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