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Thursday, December 9, 2021

New Iceland: Drawing parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and smallpox

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As COVID-19 vaccinations arrive on home soil and into the arms of Canadians, one historian says the pandemic draws stark parallels to the smallpox epidemic that devastated one Manitoba community 145 years ago. 

In 1876 in Riverton, Man., formerly known as New Iceland, one community was hit particularly hard by the smallpox outbreak that took the lives of hundreds of people, many of whom in the community were Indigenous.

“It had a huge impact. As the virus started moving around through the community, I think there was 1,000 people – over 100 people died,” Elva Simundsson, an Icelandic-Canadian historian, said in an interview with CTV National News.

The western shore of Lake Winnipeg was once a landing place for Icelandic immigrants who built lakeside communities that still stand today.

Many of the settlers were helped by Indigenous people as they were taught how to live off the land through sacred ancestral hunting techniques.

The smallpox outbreak took hold after a young boy was believed to have carried the disease overseas from Iceland, according to historians.

Shortly after, the community’s borders were closed under strict public health protocols and monitored by police.

The quarantine zone included several Indigenous tribes including the Cree and Saulteaux, otherwise known as that Plains Ojibwe, many of whom also died. Historians say some members fled to other Indigenous communities and spread the disease further.

Despite the smallpox vaccine already having been available in Canada, the rural community had not yet received it because of inaccessibility, supply issues, and poor planning decisions from officials.

“They were trying to get a vaccine, but Winnipeg was a harder place to reach in 1876,” Ryan Eyford, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, said.

While the federal and provincial governments disagreed on how to contain the virus, Eyford said those in the area continued to suffer.

In the end, it took a total of eight months and many more deaths before the virus was under control, according to Eyeford.

At least 105 Icelandic settlers and about 200 Indigenous people died before the disease slowly faded out of the community.

Similarly to the coronavirus pandemic, experts say the late reaction and insufficient aid has led to COVID-19 having a disproportionate impact on marginalized people.

According to a United Nations study, Indigenous communities are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 due to societal factors that exist in the context outside of the pandemic.

“Indigenous peoples experience a high degree of socio-economic marginalization and are at disproportionate risk in public health emergencies, becoming even more vulnerable during this global pandemic, owing to factors such as their lack of access to effective monitoring and early-warning systems, and adequate health and social services,” authors of the report wrote.

Today, many urban and rural Indigenous communities, already grappling overcrowded healthcare systems before COVID-19, chose to keep their land borders closed throughout the pandemic in hopes of limiting exposure to the virus.

Simundsson noted that although the coronavirus pandemic has stark comparisons to other health crises, she says she would never want to live through previous ones.

“Every time I think, ‘Oh, I’m so sick of this COVID,’ I keep thinking that I am so grateful I am here at this time, not the smallpox epidemic, because I can’t imagine what it would have been like,” Simundsson said.

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