Depending on who you’re listening to, Coronavirus is either not that bad, or worse than the Black Death. Of course, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but there’s no doubting the mass hysteria and hyperbole that has surrounded the virus since February.
So we thought it might be interesting to take a walk down memory lane to 2009, and examine how the last global pandemic affected the GTA, and how it compares to COVID-19.
While we all know Coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, whether or not it was due to a bat sandwich, or the rather obvious Wuhan Institute of Virology, is still unconfirmed. On the other hand, influenza A virus subtype H1N1 – or Swine Flu as it became – was first contracted in Veracruz, Mexico in March 2009, allegedly from pigs, hence the name.
As you might recall, the symptoms of Swine Flu were pretty darn similar; fever, sore throat, headache, coughing, chills, watery eyes, runny nose, aches and pains, etc, etc. Much like Coronavirus it felt like a brand new symptom was being added to the list every single week.
So the first question is, when did Swine Flu first hit Canada? Unfortunately, it’s hard to find any consensus. The Canadian Enclyopedia says it was sometime around May when the virus really hit Canadian shores, and mid-June was the first peak. However Wikipedia cites documents from the Government of Manitoba that says over 1000 people had “severe flu” in January of 2019. Which is reminiscent of claims that Coronavirus was actually spreading in late 2019, and not just March 2020 as we’ve been told.
Regardless, through spring and summer 2009 H1N1 did indeed sweep through Canada, but it had some marked differences to what we’ve experienced in 2020. Interestingly, one mjaor way in which Swine Flu differed from Coronavirus was its targets. Swine Flu didn’t infect the elderly so much as it did children under the age of five, which is the opposite of COVID. However the primary group that caught the virus were aged 24-60, while the Coronavirus demographic is massively swayed towards 60+.
Regardless, it was in April when the first cases of the virus were documented in Ontario, and April 29th when Peel Region’s associate medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, announced the region had its first case – although she denied to confirm identiy, or whether the patient was in Mississauga, Brampton, or Caledon.
It’s important to note that, in 2004, there had been a nasty outbreak of SARS in the GTA – which Coronavirus stems from – and so the region felt it was better equipped to deal with Swine Flu as a result. Little more than a week later, on May 8th, Mississauga’s first confirmed case came with a student at The Woodlands School, which then marked seven in Peel and 56 in the province.
Perhaps most interestingly, The Woodlands School didn’t close down. In fact, nowhere closed due to Swine Flu cases. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraged schools and businesses not to close in response to Swine Flu. So there was no widespread lockdown nor were people encouraged to wear masks or social distance, despite an astonishing 10% of the country’s entire population contracting the disease.
That’s right, it was estimated that 1.5 million Canadians got swine flu at some point or another, but the total death toll was only 428. One of the major reasons for the low death was that, rather incredibly, a vaccine was approved by October 2009. That quick turnaround led to 40-45% of the entire population of Canada being vaccinated, and thus there was no subsequent waves.
So it’s clear there are some similarities between Coronavirus and Swine Flu. The two pandemics were seperated by 11 years and grabbed headlines the world over. However, while swine flu was contracted by far more people, it’s death toll was much lower. Even though the mortality rate for COVID is really low, Swine Flu’s was even lower again.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to compare the two diseases. There is surprisingly little information out there when it comes to Swine Flu, in fact I couldn’t even find a single interview in which then-Mayor Hazel McCallion mentioned the disease. However we do know there was no real panic surrounding the pandemic, despite a far higher infection rate, and a vaccine was approved exceedingly quick.
Swine Flu was a global pandemic that hit Mississauga in April 2009, but caused little damage. Those who did lose their lives during that time are sadly missed but it’s clear the toll taken by Coronavirus has been more substantial. Thankfully we learned from the ’04 SARS outbreak, and the’ 09 Swine Flu, and we’re dealing with COVID as best as possible, but it’s always good to take a look back and remember what came before.