“DON’T WORRY. DON’T WORRY. BE CHEERY.” Pestilence parallels – The 1918 influenza pandemic

Over 100 years after the Spanish flu arrived hard on the heels of the end of the First World War, New Zealand is facing a similar crisis with COVID-19.  

In October 1918, The Sun newspaper reported "influenza epidemics sweeping other parts of the world, opens a new window" but decreed this was not a cause for local alarm as representatives from the Christchurch medical fraternity considered it mild and "does not approach the great epidemic of '92".

Once the disease started to impact on the North Island, the Christchurch press became more urgent in its coverage of the situation and by November was reporting moves by the Christchurch city authorities to have a "spring cleaning, opens a new window" of the city, the closure of public buildings and finally that the position was "increasing in gravity, opens a new window" with the disease making rapid headway and an unprecedented local death rate.

By early December the disease threat was waning, The Sun newspaper declared "Epidemic Passing, Position Satisfactory", opens a new window but also reported, that based on burial statistics, an estimated 466 people had died from influenza in Christchurch and environs. The nationwide death total for the 1918 Influenza Epidemic was some 9000 people with Māori particularly badly hit with a death rate of 42.3 per 1000.

Then like now, medical services were under a great deal of pressure with district nursing associations, chemists, doctors, nurses, The Red Cross and St John Ambulance all working together to provide medical care and comfort. With medical staff also succumbing to the disease there was a shortage of skilled staff and a call was put out for both skilled and non-skilled volunteers, opens a new window. During the current crisis a similar call through Home Guard NZ, opens a new window has seen over 700 retired and newly qualified medical staff volunteer.

Meanwhile families nursed sick relatives and neighbours helped neighbours. With vehicles in short supply anyone with a motor was called upon to deliver food and medicine to those in need and transport the sick to hospital. Boy Scouts even delivered food baskets to the housebound and needy.

While "Clap for our Carers" The UK's celebration for the work of the NHS wasn't exactly a thing back in 1918, there certainly was a great deal of appreciation for the work of volunteers and nurses as evidenced by the rather lovely illustration below from the NZ Observer, opens a new window. A picnic to reward all the volunteers in Christchurch was arranged by the Canterbury Automobile Association and some 1000 people attended.

The pandemic was short lived, however the resulting royal commission recommended changes to the Health Act which had a far-reaching effect. The Health Act of 1920 has been described by historian Geoffrey Rice as "so well drafted that it survived with only minor amendments until the 1956 Health Act...it was widely recognised as a model piece of health legislation".

New Zealanders' experience of, and reaction to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic was as mixed and muddled as you'd expect. The letters pages of local newspapers were full of strange remedies (looking at you, Facebook) and complaints about shortages. Citizens were advised to stay calm "as funk only makes them more susceptible to infection, opens a new window" but no doubt for most this was a frightening and challenging time. Very much like today.

Kia kaha, Christchurch.

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