July 14, 2021Print | PDF
A group of Wilfrid Laurier University student researchers uncovered similarities in societal reactions and public health tactics used during the poliovirus epidemics of the 20th century and the current COVID-19 pandemic through community-based research in Brantford.
The four students, Tyler Britz, Lillia Dockree, Delores Maas and Steve Parr, under the guidance of Tarah Brookfield, an associate professor of History and Children and Youth Studies, have released their findings in a digital exhibit titled One Generation’s Experiences in Two Pandemics.
Brookfield chose Britz, Dockree, Maas and Parr, all students of History, Indigenous Studies or Youth and Children’s Studies at Laurier’s Brantford campus, to study the connections, similarities and differences between the polio epidemics of the 1930s and 1950s and the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“I hope people see that our situation in the year 2021 is not unique,” says Tyler Britz. “People have been through the same or worse in the past and always got through. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and if these people we interviewed have been through it and can face the challenges of the modern age with poise, bravery and often humour, we can too.”
The students completed interviews with older adults in the City of Brantford and County of Brant who lived through both outbreaks to compare their experiences with quarantines, social distancing and other public health measures.
“Speaking with the survivors was so inspiring,” says Maas. “They were funny, down to earth, no nonsense and very forthcoming with their life experiences. As an Indigenous person, oral history is an integral part of my culture and being able to undertake a research subject by learning from the experiences of older adults was intriguing to me.”
The student researchers conducted their interviews with polio survivors virtually, which was a challenge, but they say interview subjects were open and candid about their experiences.
“Speaking with participants was such an honour as their input, time and wisdom have made me a better person for learning what life experiences shaped their lives,” says Parr. “They were willing to talk to me, a complete stranger, and share their childhood and the narratives that shaped and formed their lives from the polio epidemic 60 to 70 years ago to their experiences with COVID-19 today.”
The students found that similar public health tactics were used, not only during polio but also other epidemics, including personal hygiene practices, social distancing and contact tracing. The students’ research also showed similar patterns with vaccine hesitancy and debates surrounding religion and science.
“The wide diversity of our participants’ experiences was the most surprising,” says Britz. “For a few participants, the experiences of fear, uncertainty and quarantine were direct links to our modern situation. For others, a comparison of COVID-19 to the Second World War was more apt.”
The One Generation’s Experiences in Two Pandemics online exhibit highlights firsthand accounts of the polio epidemic by several local community members. Experiences ranged from paralysis, isolation and immunizations to post-polio syndrome that still affects some respondents today.
“I was surprised by the number of people who are living with post-polio syndrome,” says Dockree. “Through our research and interviews, we learned that about half of all polio survivors suffer from post-polio syndrome. I hope people recognize that polio is still having an impact on many lives to this day and that this project serves as a starting point for further research and learning.”
Uncertainty and fear shaped both outbreaks, say the students in their research. However, the respondents’ oral histories also offered hope for the end of COVID-19.
“I hope people see that our situation in the year 2021 is not unique,” says Britz. “People have been through the same or worse in the past and always got through. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and if these people we interviewed have been through it and can face the challenges of the modern age with poise, bravery and often humour, we can too.”
Learn more about the One Generation’s Experiences in Two Pandemics research project at the Laurier Archives. Brookfield created the research opportunity for undergraduate students through the Race Family Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, which provides a $1,000 scholarship to fund student research.