*Nowra Public School converted into a temporary hospital for pneumonic influenza epidemic, 1919 (Sydney Living Museums)

Just over a century ago, an influenza pandemic spun Sydney into isolation measures similar to those we’re  seeing today.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison said of the coronavirus that: “we haven’t seen this sort of thing in Australia since the end of the First World War”, he was referring to the 1918-1919 “Spanish Flu.”

It was one of the world’s deadliest epidemics; killing between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide – including more than 12,000 Australians.

As many as two million Australians were infected and by 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s population had influenza. In some parts of the city, influenza accounted for 50 per cent of all deaths.

The flu had originated in Europe towards the end of World War 1; as soldiers returned home from the European front. It spread to South Africa, Polynesia and New Zealand; before reaching Australia.

Anzac Bulletin, Issue 12, 9th May 1919 (National Library of Australia)

The Australian Quarantine Service imposed a maritime ban on October 17, 1918. It  intercepted 323 vessels, 174 of which were infected. Of the 81,510 people checked, 1102 had influenza.

“For three months, quarantine systems kept influenza out of Australia. But in January 1919, it came ashore in Victoria and then spread to Sydney on trains,” said Dr Peter Hobbins, historian at Artefact Heritage Services and the University of Sydney.

Now ships are again at the centre of Australia’s disease control efforts, with controversy surrounding the disembarkation of four foreign cruise liners despite a nationwide 30-day ban. Many passengers have since died or tested positive to the coronavirus.

Dr Hobbins says the difference between the two outbreaks lies in those initial months.

“The critical difference [in 1918-1919] was that the three months it was kept out, the disease became less deadly over time – the virus was mutating.”

“Those three months bought us time and they allowed more preparation of resources in Australia… they also meant that the version of disease that came ashore was much less dangerous to us than what was seen, even in New Zealand.

“[Because] there were no planes in 1919…  it is very different from today where disease can travel rapidly around the world.”

Like COVID-19, the influenza pandemic caused the closure of non-essential businesses and services such as libraries, theatres, and cinemas – and community spaces like churches and public halls. Public schools were also closed.

The Sun, 27th January 1919 (National Library of Australia)

“Generally what would happen is these things would be shut, then there would be mounting pressure from the business community and churches to reopen and so they would start to reopen and the disease would start to spread again and so they closed them again,” Dr Hobbins said.

NSW was the only state to offer government compensation to businesses that had been affected by the emergency regulations.

“They offered up to a third of rental payments [and] electricity and telephone bills and salaries that were due to people if they had lost business because they had done what the law had asked of them.

“However only 16 per cent of that money was paid out.”

On 26 November 1918, the Government established the National Influenza Planning Conference to coordinate a nationwide response with state governments. According to NSW State archives and records, it was decided; “states would arrange emergency hospitals, vaccination depots, ambulance services, medical staff and public awareness measures.” In addition, the Victorian border would be closed.

A ban on public events and the mandatory wearing of face masks were also public health measures implemented at the time, with fines of 20 pounds or more to anyone in NSW who also applied to those who breached the restrictions in NSW.

Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales, 13 February 1919 (National Library of Australia)

Dr Hobbins noted that modern social distancing is likely to be more successful than in 1919.

“We take it more seriously than people 100 years ago, but there were very few people who owned their own car [back then], so if you had to get to work, you had to catch public transport.

“[Also] people worked in large areas together, they couldn’t work from home because 100 years ago most people worked in factories or larger organisations or shops.  Most people didn’t have a telephone, most people didn’t have a car.

“It was society 100 years ago that had to be more physically in contact with the world.”

Now, Dr Hobbins explains, “we don’t have drugs specifically for treating the coronavirus, what we do have are drugs for treating potential complications and we also have a much better public health system with intensive care units where we can actually try to help people through the crisis.

“Our ability to keep desperately sick people is much better today than it was years ago. And we have a much better system of surveillance. We’ve [also] acted relatively quickly to try to help reduce the spread.

“We can only rely to a certain extent our government’s telling us what they really know, it comes down to us as individuals and groups to actually do what we can to follow the advice and minimise the chance of picking up the disease.”

— Soofia Tariq @soofiatariq