Pandemic summers in Halifax

Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Canadian children were familiar with the quarantine signs in the 1940s. The yellow signs on houses warned that the occupants were ill with diseases like polio, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and whooping cough.

Milkmen (some still using horse-drawn wagons), bread men, ice men, and postmen (yes, they were all men), left their deliveries on the front step. We kids would stand outside peering in at the gruesome things going on inside the houses. Children were especially susceptible to these diseases, especially diphtheria: once in a while a classmate would disappear; sometimes they didn’t return.

You were absolutely not supposed to go to public swimming pools in the summer, we were told, because there might be an outbreak of polio. Carnivals then had freak shows and often one of the attractions would be the Girl in the Iron Lung, who was stuck inside a metallic tube and who could not move, even to breathe: the machine breathed for her, with a gasping sound amplified over the PA system.

Lesser diseases such as chicken pox, tonsillitis, mumps and the common kind of measles, were inevitable. Parents just assumed kids would get them. When you were ill at home and in bed, the biggest risk was boredom. No TV or video games. You got a steady diet of ginger ale and grape juice.

For fun, someone might bring you a pile of old magazines, a scrapbook, scissors, and paste. To pass the time, you cut out the more interesting pictures and pasted them into the scrapbook. Then you looked at the scrap book. If you were lucky, you’d get more supplies later and could repeat the process.

Magazine ads warned us about an enemy we couldn’t see: germs hiding everywhere, especially in sinks and toilets, equipped with devilish horns and malignant little faces. They urged people to buy vast quantities of soap, toothpaste, mouthwash, drain cleaner, and household bleach. People were cautious of the unseen germ menace but they adapted.

Scientists found inoculations and vaccines for the diseases that stalked Halifax in the last century. People were born into a world that felt safe from germs, or a lot safer than it had been. Rather than expecting to get a certain number of illnesses as a matter of course, newer generations now considered themselves exempt.

But for most of human history, such pandemics have been part of life, another hardship to manage, like hunger, war, and poverty. Bacteria and viruses have killed far more people than wars ever did. From the point of view of a virus or a bacterium, you aren’t a fascinating individual with a memorable life story. You are merely a possible matrix in which a microbe can make more microbes.

In interludes between pandemics, we like to think it’s all over. Epidemiologists have never thought that. They’re always waiting for the next one.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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