The contempt for vaccines and opposition to health measures are not new. The stories of epidemics have always been marked by violence and conspiracy, says Denis Goulet, specialist in the history of medicine and diseases.
In his Brief history of epidemics in Quebec, the associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Montreal established that vaccine-skepticism appeared at the same time as the very first vaccine – the smallpox vaccine – at the end of the 19th century.
“Riots broke out on September 28 and 29  “, Writes Denis Goulet in his book published in the summer of 2020.” The crowd lacerates the posters ordering vaccination or plastered on contaminated houses. She besieges the health office in the eastern suburb, sets it on fire, then goes to the town hall and breaks windows there. The police charge with batons. “
The fires of anger are kindled by the government’s “pretty blunt way” of demanding vaccination. “At that time, vaccines were unknown to the population, and we did it without information. Vaccination was declared compulsory without informing people of the role of vaccination. Obviously, there was no lack of opponents to demonstrate that the vaccine was in fact a poison, ”explains Denis Goulet.
The repression against the authorities who remove smallpox children from their families and confine them in hospitals also contributes to the mistrust of the population.
Conspiracy theories also circulated as early as the 19th century. Certain French-Canadian elites, “including a certain Doctor Coderre,” blame the smallpox on the Montreal Health Bureau, controlled by Anglophones.
“The Montreal Health Bureau wanted to weaken the French-Canadian race by poisoning them with vaccination,” they said. There have been several rumors. “Despite these riots,” the population was still docile in the face of this new prophylactic means “, adds the historian. ” Why ? Because we were very afraid of infectious diseases, which were the main cause of death, both in adults and in children, at that time. “
Resistance to vaccines remained discreet during the Spanish flu epidemic, because no vaccine was then available against the viruses, unlike the bacteria studied for a long time. “Viruses can only be observed with an electron microscope, which will appear only around 1938”, relates the historian.
This ignorance will once again fuel the plots around the origin of the said virus. Some evoke an atmospheric disturbance, others will imagine a poisoning by the Germans in the trenches and transported by the soldiers during the demobilization.
Note that before the advent of the scientific method, physicians preceded by empirical verification. These prescientific deductions will mark the name of the diseases:influenza designates the influence of the stars, while malaria evokes bad air.
The Church, a vector of illness and care
The Church has long played the role of vector of disease. “We rejected the idea that it was a natural cause and instead invoke a supernatural cause,” says Denis Goulet. The disease was a “divine punishment”.
This is how the bishop of Quebec organizes processions in the city in the midst of the cholera epidemic. During the Spanish flu, the ecclesiastical authorities refuse to give up mass on Sundays. “Religious service was considered more important than prevention. “
On the contrary, the clergy will weigh heavily in the training of the first Quebec infectious disease specialists. Fervent of the Catholic Louis Pasteur, the fathers of the time sent their flock to France to study the work of the pioneer of microbiology. The considerable mortality rates due to tuberculosis also facilitate the adoption of the vaccine in the Quebec population.
Denis Goulet recalls that over the course of history, “people, in general, have adopted the rules of cleanliness and hygiene to the extent that they had the means”.