Our struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic warrants comparison with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19.
Years ago, my great-uncle, Hamilton Tudor, told me of his boyhood memories from that remarkable time. 'Uncle Hammy' was the grandson of Thomas Tudor, for whom Tudor Street, Hamilton is named, and he remained energetic until his mid-90s.
The onset of the Spanish flu in Australia, though considered inevitable, was delayed, and its effect strongly ameliorated, as the direct result of Dr John Cumpston's actions. Dr Cumpston, a young and competent director of the Federal Quarantine Office, mandated that, before docking at Australian ports, all ships stand offshore for seven days, crew and passengers to then be quarantined if influenza was diagnosed.
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Unfortunately, mirroring the recent Ruby Princess disembarkation fiasco, some soldiers returning from the European war saw no need to obey orders once their ships reached Australian waters. Mutineers from HMAS Argyllshire lowered boats into Sydney Harbour, and scattered in different directions, taking the infection with them as far as Newcastle and Maitland before being captured by police.
Uncle Hammy's mother was a stalwart of the Hamilton Red Cross, and during the epidemic she sent Hamilton, aged 9, and his older brother, on a daily errand to collect 'soup bones' from a West End butcher for delivery to Hamilton's Community Hall. There, the Red Cross ladies made broth which Hamilton and other children delivered in 'billy cans' to families too unwell to provide for themselves.
Unlike COVID-19, Spanish flu disproportionately affected young, healthy adults, and death was often sudden. Some children found themselves orphans when both their parents died within a week of one another.
A 'flu orphanage' was established at Enmore Hall, Waratah.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the 1919 pandemic, as is happening today, there was a determination to apportion blame.
Children were initially believed to be immune to the Spanish flu, which is perhaps why Hamilton's mother appeared insensible to the risk of her sons taking food to the homes of those known to be infected.
In the face of the unprecedented crisis, confusion reigned at every level of government. Acrimonious debate flared over closure of schools, churches, hotels, theatres and sporting events, the wearing of masks, what constituted permissible travel, and even the need to ban 'public kissing'.
Despite a further century of accumulated scientific knowledge, Donald Trump's recent musing about 'possibly' injecting patients with disinfectant to treat COVID-19 would sit easily among many similarly bizarre suggestions made last century. A shortage of Spanish onions developed because they were said to both prevent and cure influenza. Viruses were unknown in 1919, but bacteria were known to be killed by alcohol, so even some prominent doctors proposed that drinking alcohol might prevent infection. More than one person suggested to a magistrate that their public drunkenness merely represented inadvertent 'overtreatment' of their flu symptoms.
It had long been acknowledged that Newcastle Hospital was unprepared to deal with an epidemic. When the number of influenza patients exploded, the Waratah Benevolent Home (later the Western Suburbs Maternity Hospital), as well as at least one local public school, were quickly re-purposed to care for them. Despite mortal danger, when nurses at the Newcastle Hospital were asked, every woman (and they were only women then) volunteered to staff the Waratah Influenza Hospital. Using the metaphor of war and struggle, their courage was compared favourably with that of Australia's soldiers, and celebrated.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the 1919 pandemic, as is happening today, there was a determination to apportion blame. The competent Newcastle Hospital Superintendent, Dr Zions, was falsely blamed for the epidemic 'escaping' into the general population. As a first-generation Polish-Australian Jew who enjoyed singing sea shanties with sailors in waterfront hotels, he proved easy to scapegoat. He resigned, changed his name to Dr Norman Haire, and later won renown in London as a pioneer sex therapist.
Musing what the world will be like following COVID-19, it may help to recognise that after the Spanish flu pandemic, Newcastle developed a 'fever hospital' at Rankin Park (though, when completed, it was mainly used to treat patients with tuberculosis), a district ambulance service, and a community nursing service to treat patients in their homes.
A better society may not inevitably arise from chaos, but we can be reassured it is possible.
Dr David Williams, Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle
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