Like war, there is a fog about pandemics.
The pair collided on the front page of the Nov. 7, 1918 Reformer. A headline declared, “The ‘Flu’ is passing.” Next to it was a headline based on an erroneous dispatch declaring an end to the First World War. The armistice, in fact, would come four days later.
Despite wishful reporting, the Spanish flu that ravaged the world from 1918 to 1920 had yet to do its meanest work in Norfolk. By the spring of 1919, no town, hamlet or concession road had been spared.
Because this was wartime, candour in Commonwealth newspapers was hard to come by. Truth took a backseat to the interests of the Empire and the need to uphold morale at home. This was the source of much misplaced optimism.
“The facts are that the town is almost clear, and it is desirable to give business a chance to resume,” the Nov. 7 Reformer said. “If there is a return of the plague, it need only be the work of minutes to re-impose the ban.”
That “ban” included the closure of churches, non-essential retailing, theatres, and other places of entertainment. Then as now, our ancestors a century ago understood the value of social distancing during a contagious outbreak.
In the Nov. 21, 1918 Reformer, the editor took rumour-mongers to task for spreading stories of the flu’s resurgence. Not long after however, wishful thinking made way for the sad reality that the grim harvest wasn’t finished.
As it happened, the virus – an aggressive form of H1N1 influenza — had one last march to make across Norfolk County. It was left to the anonymous correspondents in Norfolk’s outlying areas to break the news that the body count was mounting.
“We are sorry to say that the influenza epidemic is very bad in Jarvis,” the Nov. 28, 1918 Reformer reported.
On the page opposite, a correspondent wrote “The epidemic of influenza that passed over Dunnville so lightly in October is breaking out there very badly. Six deaths were reported in one day this week.”
And so it went, week after week, paper after paper. Reports of death and debilitating illness punctuated the pages through the winter as a grim matter of fact, borne by the community, apparently, with a stiff upper lip.
Despite the grim toll, closures were not re-imposed and there was not a return to social distancing.
The Reformer reported that a theatre company was touring the area, staging productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Norfolk theatres. The paper reported on a successful masquerade ball at the town hall in Port Dover. The pages were dotted with advertisements for silent films at the Lyric Theatre in Simcoe, ones starring Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish among others.
The price Simcoe and Norfolk paid for toughing it out was high.
The Dec. 12, 1918 Reformer reported that special anniversary services at First Baptist Church were postponed due to sickness.
“There will be no Christmas tree in Fairground this year on account of the flu,” a report in the Dec. 26 Reformer said. Jan. 9, 1919, the Reformer reported that the schoolhouse in Port Ryerse was closed due to sickness.
“Some nine cases of the `flu’ have broken out in this district and Christmas passed very quietly on that account,” the stringer from the lakeside community said. Jan. 23, 1919 the Reformer reported “20 recent cases” in St. Williams.
Year-end reports provided rare insights into the Spanish flu’s impact locally. In his annual report to Norfolk County and the Minister of Education, Norfolk school inspector H.F. Cook noted a decline in enrolment in 1918 and an increase in truancy.
All but four schools in the county closed for a time due to the pandemic. Those that remained open saw little traffic. Cook said the absentee rate in Norfolk for 1918 was 43.7 per cent. That compares with 35.9 per cent in 1915.
“The influenza epidemic was one cause that fixed itself upon our attention very forcibly,” Cook said in the June 19, 1919 Reformer.
Another glimpse of the toll was provided in the annual report of the Oakwood Cemetery Company in Simcoe.
There were 96 burials in Oakwood in 1918, 46 of them – nearly half — occurring in the last three months of the year. The Reformer acknowledged the sad fact Jan. 30, 1919: “During the last quarter, the epidemic of influenza flourished,” the paper conceded, “thus accounting for so large a number of deaths.”