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Nationalist Pundit

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Montreal Smallpox 1885

About the only good thing about the 'Stay At Home' orders is that many cable channels are free.  I stumbled across one called CONTV, which features mostly superhero video, plus stuff about cosplay and fan conventions.  Then I spotted a Canadian documentary called, "Outbreak: Anatomy of a Plague".  The film is about the Montreal smallpox outbreak of 1885.  Along with retelling that bit of history, they also present how a similar epidemic in modern day Montreal might be handled.  What impressed me was the similarities with how people reacted to the 1885 smallpox epidemic in Montreal and how we are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.  Of course, our current outbreak is far larger in numbers and scope.  But the Montreal story follows nearly the very same pattern of events and how they unfolded.


When it comes to pandemics, be thankful that we are facing this novel strain of Coronavirus and not smallpox!  Smallpox is possibly the most deadly disease in human history!  About one third of those infected die.  Many who survive are left scarred or weakened for life.  Some even are left blind.  It is said that smallpox has killed more humans than all wars in history combined!  Are you scared yet?  The World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1979.  But, there are still samples of live viruses held at the CDC in Atlanta and at a Russian lab.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, some experts believe that Russian samples may have been sold or were being modified for germ warfare.  Bio-terrorism is a serious concern.  There are stockpiles of smallpox vaccines available, but just how effective these still are is questionable.

On February 28, 1885, a train arrived from Chicago in Montreal.  Patient Zero was a conductor named George Longley.  Dr. Thomas Roger was the first responder on the scene and he tried to get his patient admitted to a prominent hospital.  However, it was there that another doctor named Hingston recognized the signs of smallpox and sent Longley and Roger away.  Montreal, a  city then with some 200,000 people, had a hospital specially reserved for use by smallpox patients.  But with no cases for some 5 years, it had been closed down.  Roger managed to get Longley admitted to a small Catholic hospital, where its nursing nuns believed Longley had chicken pox.  The next morning, they realized that it was smallpox, and quickly isolated him.  But, it was too late.

Longley recovered in 3 weeks and returned to Chicago.  But the smallpox remained in Montreal.  The killer had seeped its way into the French-Canadian population, who were mostly Catholic and generally poorer than their English counterparts.  A trickle of new cases kept popping up through till April.  The small, Catholic hospital decided to send all of their patients home so the building could be disinfected.  This had the affect of spreading the disease even more.  Whole neighborhoods now started getting sick.  Especially in the poorest areas, where people were packed in multi-generational residencies.  On April 15, the city's public health officials went public, warning citizens about the outbreak and encouraging vaccination.  

The city had just two doctors on its payroll to administer free vaccines.  Other doctors charged $1 a vaccination, about a day's wages.  The English speaking population of Montreal embraced vaccination, blaming those poor French for bringing the epidemic on.  The French, in turn, blamed the English for trying to kill them.  They saw the vaccine as part of that plot.  Indeed, the vaccine itself was not the best.  Derived from cowpox, a bad batch had been unleashed, making many sick.  Resistance to vaccination grew as the disease spread.  As Spring turned to Summer, crowds gathered at parades and other events, further spreading smallpox. The rich fled the city.  The poor were stuck.  After a while, nobody could leave the city unless they had proof of being vaccinated. By August, people were dying at a rate of 500 a month and getting worse.  The city began to shutdown.

Montreal became known to the outside world as a smallpox hot zone.  Tourism ended, shippers refused to deliver products, businesses closed.  By September, the dead started to pile up.  Some caskets had 2 or 3 bodies in them.  Unemployment increased as French-Canadians were shunned.  Police tried to remove the sick, especially children, to hospitals, but were often met with resistance.  Riot erupted, even one which assaulted the townhall.  People kept dying despite best efforts.  But, eventually, the smallpox epidemic began to subside.  The last victim died on Christmas Eve.  She was a 6-year old girl whose parents refused to get her vaccinated.  All in all, over 5,800 died and some 9,000 people had been left scarred.  The vast majority were French Canadians, and most of them were young children.

Sound familiar?  Epidemics, quarantines, steadily rising infection and death rates.  Economic shutdowns.  Public riots and protests.  Skepticism about vaccinations and treatments.  Travel bans.  History is repeating itself.  Eventually, the COVID-19 virus will burn out just as smallpox did.  Smallpox is, by far, a worse disease.  Though it does have the advantage of showing itself.  People could tell from the red and black pustules that you were infected.  No such signs from Coronavirus other than a bad cough.  Still, if you have to choose, COVID-19 is much more survivable than smallpox.  So, be thankful for that shred of good news.

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