Taking a lesson from the Walkerton water tragedy

By Pauline Kerr

As crises go, the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways unique, but in other ways, all too familiar.
Few of us have experienced a pandemic, but we have seen other diseases wreak havoc on our communities.
There are elements with COVID-19 that echo the early days of HIV-AIDS, in that no one was too sure how contagious it was, exactly how it was transmitted, and who it would hit next. All we knew is friends – young, healthy people – would sicken and die. It was profoundly frightening. Even after we knew what it was, there was no cure.
HIV-AIDS is now considered highly treatable, although there is still no cure or vaccine. People can live fairly normal lives with HIV-AIDS, at least in the developed world. If a group of random people were asked about their biggest fear, it is a safe bet few would mention it.
There are also people who remember polio epidemics. Every summer, this dreadful disease killed and maimed many, conducting its most vicious attacks against children. People feared it, refusing to allow their children to swim at public pools or even play with other children. In fact, if they could afford to escape the city for the summer months, when polio was at its worst, they did so.
The development of an effective vaccine, together with sanitation, put an end to polio’s ravages in much of the world. One does have to wonder what would happen in this era of the anti-vaxxer movement if there were to be another outbreak of the disease. It is, after all, still endemic in some countries in the developing world. And anti-vaxxers travel.
The same question is being asked about COVID-19. Even if an effective vaccine is developed, will enough people use it to create that all-important herd immunity?
Those of us who have been in midwestern Ontario for many years will certainly recall another disease that struck suddenly and viciously. Initially, no one knew how it was being transmitted, even as thousands sickened and the death toll climbed to seven.
The Walkerton water crisis of 20 years ago this past long weekend was horrifying and devastating.
Like COVID-19, its symptoms varied in intensity. Some people suffered a fairly mild illness while others suffered permanent disability or death. It appeared indiscriminate in who it attacked. At first, no one knew what it was or what to do.
Finally, public health officials determined the culprit was a deadly strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7, and it was in the town’s drinking water.
Water is something we take for granted, like hugging a friend or sitting on a park bench. We turn on the tap and out it comes, clear and refreshing. Until it makes you desperately sick.
There were a lot of communities like Walkerton in the year 2000, with water operators who had inadequate training and little government oversight, looking after systems with faults that made contamination possible. Had the crisis not happened in Walkerton, it would have happened somewhere else.
Unlike E. coli 0157:H7, COVID-19 is global in scope. The horror and devastation are the same, except there is no escaping this new disease.
However, we can take lessons from the past and apply them to today’s situation. The first is communities can and do recover, and they can become stronger. Walkerton certainly did. It took a huge amount of determination, and a lot of help from government.
Water system operators in communities across this country and abroad have access to the best training in the world, thanks to the Walkerton Clean Water Centre, which came about as a direct result of the crisis.
We have also learned red tape is not necessarily a bad thing. Ignoring testing requirements and paying mere lip service to regulations about chlorination cost lives 20 years ago.
Today’s COVID-19 regulations that keep us from partying with friends and going wherever we want are there for a reason. And we have learned the hard way how high the price can be for ignoring them.

Taking a lesson from the Walkerton water tragedy was last modified: May 20th, 2020 by Tammy Schneider

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