Newly federated Australia, with its population not yet 5 million, was still enduring shocking fatalities on the European western front when its authorities began paying attention to the virulent strain of pneumonic influenza sweeping Britain.
Early Australian awareness of the “Spanish influenza” – an epidemic in Britain by mid to late 1918 – came with an acknowledgment that the new states grown of old colonies would need to stick together should the virus reach this isolated continent.
“The duty of guarding the country from the introduction of disease from overseas countries is imposed on the Federal Government, but the duty of combating disease within the Commonwealth is imposed on the various States … The least want of cooperation might be followed by disastrous results,” the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate of 17 October mused with some prescience. “Australia will be kept from the disease only by the exercise of the utmost vigilance.”
The federation, its disparate state and territory elements supposedly forged into a nation in the hellfire of Gallipoli in 1915 and all of the horror that followed in the subsequent years of the great war, would, it seemed, confidently repel what was, by the time it hit Australia in early 1919, a global pandemic.
But the reality was quite different. Some 40% of the fledgling nation’s population (predominantly men aged between 25 and 40 – a similar demographic to that which contributed most to this commonwealth’s world war one fatality lists) would contract the flu that ultimately killed 13,000 Australians and 50 million people worldwide. And by mid-late 1919 – by which time the Australian papers were filled with articles about the hundreds of people who were dying weekly – the federation, still working on the myth that nationhood stemmed from a foreign war, was buckling in the face of contagion.
As the historian Humphrey McQueen writes in The Spanish Influenza Epidemic in Australia, 1918-19: “In 1915 an external menace had driven Australians together; by 1919, an internal danger revealed yet again how easy it was for Australian to stand apart. If national unity involved loyalty to the Commonwealth as an administrative machine, the Pandemic showed how little of it there was.”
Indeed, as the Spanish flu hit Australian shores in January – first via the servicemen returning home – it did not take long for state-versus-state loyalties to eclipse national federal interests.
As McQueen recounts, in late 1918, before Australian health authorities had experienced a single known case, the federal government had acquired the power to close interstate borders upon notification by state health officers of Spanish flu cases. The states effectively ceded control of borders and interstate traffic to the commonwealth.
The first diagnosed case in New South Wales challenged the integrity of that agreement. He was a returned soldier who had come to Sydney from Melbourne. Victoria, despite medical evidence to the contrary, had not notified the commonwealth of the Spanish flu in its midst. It was only after NSW notified the commonwealth (its headquarters and federal parliament were based at the time in Melbourne) that Victoria itself made the formal notification. NSW, blaming Victoria for the transmission, responded unilaterally, shutting its border with Victoria and walking away from the agreement.
Once transmitted to Australia the flu rapidly escaped a quarantine system whose efficacy relied on the honesty of ship medical officers to volunteer past or present cases on board, and the willingness of returned soldiers to self-report and voluntarily isolate themselves rather than seek “cures”.
Quackery was rampant. The broader medical fraternity was divided on origins of the flu, methods and bases of diagnosis, and possible treatment.
Then – as now with coronavirus – “foreigners”, even those who’d been in Australia for generations, were treated with utmost suspicion.
Indeed, in Australia and throughout allied Europe and the US, the supposed genesis of the Spanish flu had its foundations firmly in fear and blame of the other, not least the old enemy.
“This modern plague … has commonly been called Spanish influenza,” the Australasian of 29 March 1919 reported. “Yet it did not originate in Spain, nor was it exactly the grippe or influenza of other days. It appears that the Germans, in anticipation that the malady might be justly named German plague … broadcast a misleading name which they had craftily devised before the infection spread from Germany to other countries.”
There was no evidence the pandemic began in Germany. Epidemiologists have since determined it was likely that servicemen from the US – who entered the war late – brought a milder flu strain to Europe. It then transmogrified into the Spanish flu (so named because the king of Spain was among the first to die of it).
In Australia schools were closed, sporting events – if they proceeded – were unattended, and worshippers stayed away from church. As borders closed and the west coast was isolated from the east, and as coastal shipping all but ceased, the war-hit economy slowed. The poor and disadvantaged – especially Aboriginal communities who had always been hit disproportionately by European-introduced illness – were impacted the hardest. For example, at the Barambah government Aboriginal reserve in Queensland 590 Indigenous people contracted the illness and 90 of them died within three weeks.
As Australian markets slump and the economy faces the prospect of recession, both in line with global trends, it would be illustrative to reflect on the economic impact of the Spanish flu on Australia’s post-world war one economy.
But with the exception of McQueen and a few others, Australian historiography – while reflecting obsessively on the first world war which killed 62,000 Australians over four years – has not delved nearly as deeply into the economic impact on Australia of the pandemic that took 13,000 lives in about a year. It has all but ignored the fascinating story of how a seemingly robust new federation, supposedly forged in the blood and steel of overseas battle, almost crumbled in the face of a virulent threat on the home front.
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