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  • Writer's picturePete Jonson

Pandemic: then and now

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

We are living through the scariest global event since the Spanish Influenza pandemic 100 years ago. No-one alive then recalls the event. Interested readers can click on the address below to read an account of Australia's treatment when the Spanish flu arrived here in 1919.

The report was written by J.H.L. Cumpston, Director of Quarantine.

The global Covid-19 plague arose around 100 years after the so called Spanish Influenza plague. I have come across Laura Spinney’s 2017 book Pale Rider. The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. I shall pick out some points from Spinney’s book, often quite similar to events in the Covid-19 story.

It is believed that the first death of ‘Spanish’ Flu occurred on 4 March 1918 and the last death occurred sometime in March 1920. It killed 50-100 million people, or between 2.5 and 0.5 per cent of the global population, amounts that are still uncertain. In comparison, deaths in WWI were 17 million and WWII 60 million. Spinney says: ‘It was the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death, perhaps the in the whole of human history”. (* P4)

‘The war had a geographical focus … and a narrative that unfolded in time. The Spanish flu, in contrast, engulfed the entire globe in the blink of an eye”. (* P5). I am fascinated at the apparent similarities with the behaviour of Covid-19, as I shall draw out. The main point is the fact that there were three waves: the first mild, the second savage and the third intermediate in strength. Fortunately Australia had warning as the pandemic seems to have started in the USA, despite the attribution to Spain. Australia therefore closed its borders quickly, and missed the mild and savage onslaughts.

Later I will briefly discuss other attempts at fending off the Flu, but there are clear parallels in the Spanish Flu experience with current attempts to reduce damage everywhere. I believe it will require someone like Laura Spinney, when the Covid-19 burns itself out, perhaps when a vaccine or vaccines go to work. At the time of writing there are said to be 168 serious attempts to create a vaccine, with several medical groups racing ahead to test their proposals with people. Faster and more competent medical research is underway, which should not be surprising.

But occasionally a voice of doom says ‘What if there is no vaccine?

Another matter raised by Spinney was the effect on people’s states of mind. Attempts to limit the Covid by ‘lockdown’ have had similar effects now. People are depressed and finding it hard to get things done, although medical researchers and corporate leaders seem to be able to maintain their rage, and keep working as hard as ever. As did some artists. ‘Doctors were unsettled by their observation that many patients who survived the initial attack went on to develop nervous complications, including depression. …” Spinney tells us that some have suggested that Edvard Munch’s famous painting the Scream, sprang from his flu-darkened thoughts.

He is quoted as follows: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below,” he wrote later. “I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord – the sun was setting and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed that a scream was passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream.” (* P24).

I thoroughly recommend Laura Spinney’s book. It will give readers a benchmark for comparison with our emerging lives with the daily struggle to beat the Covid-19. If like me you cannot help becoming angry at decisions by our political masters you find ridiculous[ and even damaging, Spinney’s book may support an account from 100 years ago that seem in the light of what in some senses seem worse efforts to beat the latest pandemic, despite far better science but dare I say generally worse politicians.

One hundred years ago a Health officer in Bombay said the Spanish Flu arrived “Like a thief in the night, its onset rapid, and insidious’.

Like our pandemic.

Spinney briefly discusses weaknesses in attempts to reduce the Flu’s effects.

‘As time went on, fatigue set in even among those who had complied to begin with. Not only were the measures preventing them from going about their normal lives, but their efficacy appeared to be patchy at best. Role models forgot themselves. The mayor of San Francisco let his face mask dangle while watching a parade to celebrate the armistice, and the logic behind the restrictions was sometimes hard to follow. Father Bandeaux, a Catholic priest in New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in that city, when stores had been left open. Such disparities, and the complaints they sometimes elicited, were duly reported in the newspapers’.* (* Pp 101 -102)

Most newspapers’ attitudes, ‘like that of doctors and the authorities , was paternalistic.’ * (* P 102)

The leading Italian newspaper started by providing daily death tolls but soon got prevented by the authorities. The ensuing silence bred even greater anxieties. ‘After all, people could see the exodus of dead bodies from their streets and villages’. * (* P 102)

New York in 1918 had a population of 5.6 million and was rapidly catching up with London. Two factors boosted its people - immigration and soldiers embarking for war in Europe. The immigrants included many Italians, whose grasp of English was poor. The city had as Health commissioner a medical man called Royal S. Copeland. At first he dragged his feet. Then a ‘thoroughly infected Norwegian vessel’ and eleven of its passengers were taken to hospital in Brooklyn, they were not isolated’.

Once Copeland admitted the pandemic was real, and damaging, he took three potentially helpful decisions:

1. He eliminated the rush hour by staggering opening times of factories, shops and cinemas;

2. Set up emergency health system in which 150 emergency health centres were created to coordinate treatment of the infected people; and

3. He (most controversially) kept the schools open.

Head of the health department child hygiene division Josephine Baker persuaded Copeland not to close the schools, his initial plan. Baker said: ‘I want to see if I can’t keep the six-to-15 -year age group in this city away from danger of the “flu’,’ she told him. ‘I don’t know that I can do it, but I would awfully like to have a chance’. It was done and, as Spinney concludes: ‘The flu was practically absent from school-age children that fall’.* (* 104)

In my view, every politician or high official in Australia should be required to read Mr Cumpston’s 1919 book and Ms Spinney’s 2017 book.

Sporting life

Last evening we watched Caaaarlton! Take on Gold Coast in Darwin. The sun was down but temperature remained high and was reinforced by ‘dampness’. As the Australian shouted: ‘Carlton beat suns to push for first AFL finals berth in seven years’.


Fiona Prior sees Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’, the film Hollywood is hoping will bring people back to the movie theatres. More here.

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