Pandemics in the Past

As we write this blog post our country is just beginning to feel the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This kind of pandemic is relatively rare in modern society… but the colonial settlers of Dunedin knew all about it. In this blog post we’re exploring how our forebears dealt with concerns over disease spread.

We might think that we’re currently experiencing never-before-seen levels of concern over the pandemic spread of viruses, but many of the conversations we’re having now have been had through the centuries with various disease outbreaks. In fact, not much has changed since our last pandemic experience, as you can see from a quick trawl through the historical records…

In 1900 the Bubonic Plague arrived in Sydney, a port with close links to New Zealand. Widespread concern over plague coming to New Zealand reigned. Ships coming into NZ’s ports were quarantined, blanket travel bans on people coming in from Australia were considered and passengers were medically inspected before being allowed to disembark.

Disease outbreaks have long been associated with travel bans. This article is from the 8th March 1900 (Timaru Herald, Volume LXIV, Issue 3205, accessed via Papers Past)

The bubonic plague never made it to New Zealand’s shores, much to the relief of its inhabitants. But NZ was not spared from the global Spanish Flu (1918-1920) epidemic. From late 1918 the newspapers of the time filled with reports of numbers of cases in different towns, reports of where people may have been exposed, and cancellation notices for sporting events and public gatherings.

Cancellations of public events during the Influenza epidemic (22nd Nov 1918, Evening Star, Issue 16898, accessed via Papers Past)

We’ve even found a hint that the Dunedin Borough Council was being inundated with requests for disinfectant, much like our current hoarding of hand sanitiser!

Get your disinfectant while we’re open! Reports from the 22nd Nov 1918, Evening Star, Issue 16898, accessed via Papers Past

Here in Dunedin the disease hit relatively hard, with the hospital crowded with cases and health workers contracting the influenza they were trying to fight. The Christchurch races, held just before the Dunedin outbreak happened were blaming for the spread of the disease.

The effects of Influenza on Dunedin (2nd April 1919, Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XLVI, Issue 14876. Accessed via Papers Past)

It’s interesting to see the cautionary note about improper mask use in the Poverty Bay Herald article. The infectious disease specialists of today have been issuing similar warnings about the use of masks during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The use of masks by the public can lead people to a false sense of security and most of us are unfamiliar with the protocol for hygienic mask removal followed by medical professionals. It’s also vitally important that we save the limited supply of protective gear for those on the front line who need it most – our medical technicians, nurses, and doctors.

There are many parallels between the 1918 influenza outbreaks and what we are dealing with in NZ now. We too are seeing the cancellation of long-anticipated events, restrictions on social gatherings, and a public education campaign encouraging proper personal hygiene. Unfortunately we also see unscrupulous people profiting off unproven “cures” or “immune boosters”. In 1918 it was tonics and today it’s elderberry syrup and essential oils!

A miracle tonic from the early 1900s purported to cure influeza (Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0)

There are things we can do to care for ourselves and our community. Social distancing and frequent hand washing (New Zealand’s favourite dad shows you the proper way to do this here: are the best way we can care for each other! The important thing to remember is that Kiwis have been through this before and come out on the other side…

Hoping all our readers are staying healthy and keeping themselves and their families safe. Kia kaha everyone.

Charlotte King & Annie Snoddy, 20th March 2020

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