Debates around COVID-19 are now fueled by conspiracy theories, fake news and scapegoats. But as the story of Quebec in the 19th century makes clear, pandemics have always been linked to outbreaks of mass skepticism and witch hunts.
Last summer, Quebecois comedian, storyteller and biologist Boucar Diouf featured an episode of a radio show with Denis Goulet, an associate professor at the University of Montreal and a specialist in the history of medicine. They talked about Goulet’s book, "Brève histoire des épidémies au Québec – du choléra à la COVID-19" (“A Brief History Of Epidemies in Quebec — from Cholera to COVID-19”).
MONTREAL — Let’s go back to Montreal between 1875 and 1885. Although waves of smallpox were raging like Facebook trolls, many francophones refused the vaccine to protect themselves against the disease. Some columnists and clergymen even started a rumor that the British authorities were trying to weaken the French Canadian population by injecting poison into their veins! An anglophone newspaper went as far as to peddle the idea that the virus was spreading due to the bad hygiene of francophones.
That’s just how it goes; the witch hunt for scapegoats is tied to the history of epidemics. You can even find doctors ready to testify that vaccines are useless. It should be noted that at the time, vaccines — made using a virus with a weakened virulence — had their risks. Contrary to today’s hyper-safe vaccines, the vials of yore sometimes contained microbes that were “healthy” enough to infect someone during their vaccination.
Now add the fact that back then, vaccination was a very recent practice that was not well understood by the average person. Plus, techniques for sterilizing syringes were rudimentary. The sum of all these elements paved the way for skeptical voices. Measures like isolating the contaminated, enforcing lockdowns for sick children and their families in designated hospitals, and boarding up homes were met with just as much resistance and incomprehension as we’re seeing with pandemic protocols today.
When Mayor Honoré Beaugrand, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the epidemic, made vaccination mandatory, a crowd of angry protesters drove to the center of the city. Engines roaring, masks off! They, too, had had enough of it all. Some besieged and burned down the health office at Faubourg de l’Est, which housed the office of today's equivalent of the public health director. Others smashed the windows of City Hall and threatened vaccine-administering doctors at the doors of their very own homes!
At the request of the mayor of Montreal, the federal government deployed 600 soldiers to restore public order. They sent police officers to bodyguard doctors targeted by demonstrators. In those days, much like these days, many detractors of sanitary measures were convinced that the vaccine was more dangerous than the disease.
As a result, the smallpox epidemic hit 20,000 people in Quebec, the majority of whom were left disfigured. It took the lives of 3,000 Montrealers, the vast majority of whom were anti-vax francophones.
Anti vaccine riots in front of Montreal's City Hall in September 1885
Of quarantines past
While the smallpox epidemic hit Montrealers hard, the Spanish flu outbreak did not affect the small community on the north coast of Quebec known as Baie-Johan-Beetz. This is because Dr. Johan Beetz successfully implemented a quarantine. Let’s remember that forced (or highly recommended) seclusion is a very old, proven practice in times of epidemics.
The first reported quarantine dates back to 1374 in Venice, when the city was “closed” for 40 days to spare the population from the Bubonic plague. The Italians baptized the public health practice quaranta giorni, meaning forty days — the origin of the word “quarantine.”
We often blame the internet, but these divisions existed well before the electronic highway
This made detained ships less dangerous for locals as the vessel’s occupants were only allowed to enter the city at the end of their isolation. It’s similar to the methods used today for COVID-19, and the Venetian technique was quickly implemented in other European ports of the Mediterranean. In fact, every major European port had a lazaretto, a guarded fortress where suspect merchandise and foreigners were obliged to stay for 40 days before entering the city.
Centuries later, the little village of Baie-Johan-Beetz was spared from the Spanish flu as Dr. Johan Beetz implemented the quarantine technique as a protective strategy. To think that this Belgian doctor, aristocrat and sculptor came to the coastal hamlet in 1897 to raise foxes! Luckily he was present in 1918, when the Spanish flu was declared a pandemic, and applied his knowledge of quarantine and social distancing to the community.
A doctor and a nurse at the Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal in 1946
Dr. Beetz proposed that the villagers follow all the measures that enraged both the francophones of Montreal during the 1885 smallpox breakout and the global population today during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the story goes, the town completely trusted Dr. Beetz and came out unscathed from a flu that claimed 50,000 victims in Canada, nearly 15,000 of whom were from Quebec. But Baie-Johan-Beetz didn’t record any deaths, even as other nearby towns that didn’t apply quarantine suffered.
The history of epidemics is inseparable from scapegoats, conspiracy theories, fake news and accusations from all sides that we associate with COVID-19. Yet these rifts that fracture our society have already been seen in other forms. We often blame the internet, but these divisions existed well before the electronic highway — before any highway, actually.
As they say in French, it’s a vieille histoire. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It makes me wonder how historians who watch history constantly repeat itself don’t get sick of it.