Halifax’s first pandemic

Halifax in 1832.

Epidemic infectious diseases are nothing new to Halifax.

In 1832, cholera arrived in British North America. Quebec City lost 10% of its population and Montréal 15%. Halifax undertook extensive, and expensive, preparations.

Officials established three additional hospitals staffed by two doctors and a physician’s assistant. Then the city was spared, despite a regular flow of immigrants, not a single case was reported.

Two years later cholera ravaged the city. On Aug. 13 the Novascotian noted rumours of cholera deaths in the Halifax poorhouse despite a categorical denial from the Board of Health.

On Aug. 23, the Acadian Recorder reported cholera in the poorhouse, among the garrison, and throughout the city.

By Aug. 30, 35 members of the garrison had died and the Recorder was asking why: “The military are supposed to be kept clean, well clothed, and regularly fed. These particulars are acknowledged preventatives of cholera, why then, according to the nature of things, should those enjoying them be selected as victims?”

Ultimately, 400 died in the city.

“Two years ago the most ample preparation was made and very heavy expenses incurred, for the reception of Cholera, but the Cholera did not come,” said the Novascotian. “It is probable enough that the whole thing might have been managed with more economy; and if any body could have foreseen that the disease would have been two years travelling from Canada here, several thousands might have been saved.”

In the face of Lieutenant Governor Colin Campbell’s complaints that the colony could not afford to receive infected immigrant ships the Colonial Office granted an additional £500 for extraordinary immigrant related epidemic expenses.

The Lieutenant Governor estimated that to be only one-third of the costs of the epidemic and responded by sending more than 75 impoverished English back, evoking fury in the Colonial Office. Then as now, the economics of pandemics competed with public health measures.

This balancing act between the cost of preparing for a pandemic and the likelihood of one occurring is a timeless problem for bureaucrats and politicians.

Former American secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt summed up the problem. “In advance of a pandemic, anything you say sounds alarmist, after a pandemic starts, everything you’ve done is inadequate,” he says.

Two centuries ago, as Halifax confronted cholera, the issues were no different than those that confront us today as we respond to COVID-19.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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