The in­vis­i­ble in­vader

As the Great War drew to a close, New Zealand came un­der at­tack from a tiny, deadly en­emy. By Ge­of­frey Rice.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS -

It took four years for World War I to kill 18,000 New Zealand sol­diers. Yet in the six weeks from early Novem­ber to mid-De­cem­ber 1918, at least 9000 Kiwi civil­ians and sol­diers died from in­fluenza and pneu­mo­nia in what’s known as the Span­ish Flu pan­demic.

This was New Zealand’s share of a global calamity 100 years ago. The most re­li­able es­ti­mates place the death toll at be­tween 50 mil­lion and 60 mil­lion, or about 3 per cent of the global pop­u­la­tion at that time.

We know noth­ing about large parts of Africa and Asia, and may never know, for sim­ple lack of ev­i­dence. Sixty mil­lion dead would be about three times the to­tal death toll from World War I, sol­diers and civil­ians com­bined.

Many peo­ple thought the 1918 flu was a re­turn of the bubonic plague be­cause cyanosis turned the vic­tims’ bod­ies black.

It was a se­ri­ously bizarre pan­demic. In­fluenza nor­mally kills only the vul­ner­a­ble, the very young and the frail el­derly, or those with lungs dam­aged by tu­ber­cu­lo­sis or other res­pi­ra­tory dis­eases. But this A/H1N1 virus (now com­monly known as Swine Flu) killed mostly young adults aged 25 to 45.

Chil­dren and teenagers seemed vir­tu­ally im­mune to the 1918 flu, as did the older mid­dle-aged. The lat­est ex­pla­na­tion posits that the co­hort born dur­ing the pre­vi­ous flu pan­demic, the Rus­sian flu of 1889-93, suf­fered from com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems that over-re­acted when con­fronted by a dif­fer­ent flu virus in 1918.

This is a neat and plau­si­ble hy­poth­e­sis, but it doesn’t ex­plain all of the quirky and un­usual fea­tures of the 1918 flu.

Laura Spin­ney’s re­cent book Pale Rider: the Span­ish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World de­scribes the 1918 flu as a ‘‘Protean’’ event, mas­sive and com­plex, af­fect­ing dif­fer­ent places in dif­fer­ent ways. Some coun­tries got off lightly (most no­tably Aus­tralia, thanks to a strict mar­itime quar­an­tine) while oth­ers such as In­dia and In­done­sia lost mil­lions.

Indige­nous peo­ples suf­fered worst of all. Western Samoa, then un­der New Zealand mil­i­tary con­trol, lost 22 per cent of its peo­ple, while Amer­i­can Samoa’s mar­itime quar­an­tine meant no flu cases at all. John Ryan McLane’s re­search has found an even bleaker pic­ture in Western Samoa, where the loss of adults and dis­rup­tion to agri­cul­ture caused a famine in 1919, and the pop­u­la­tion dropped by a third be­tween 1917 and 1920.

The most strik­ing dis­cov­ery was the great dis­par­ity be­tween Pakeha and Maori death rates. New Zealan­ders of Euro­pean de­scent died at a rate of about 6 per 1000, whereas Maori died at a rate of 42 per 1000, and although vir­tu­ally all Pakeha deaths were reg­is­tered , only about two-thirds of Maori deaths were of­fi­cially recorded.

Re­ports from re­lief par­ties vis­it­ing pa and kainga, and Maori flu mon­u­ments in North­land and Hawke’s Bay sup­port this view: fewer than half of the names can be found in the death reg­is­ters.

Re­sis­tance to con­scrip­tion and the boy­cott of the 1916 cen­sus by Waikato Maori fur­ther com­pli­cate the pic­ture, but it seems likely that Maori mor­tal­ity in the 1918 flu has been un­der­es­ti­mated and was more like 2500. That would push their death rate up to 49 per 1000, or nearly five per cent, which is sim­i­lar to the death rate among indige­nous Fi­jians, and eight times the Pakeha death rate.

Why were Maori so much more at risk of death in the 1918 flu? There is no sin­gle sim­ple an­swer. A com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors made for a per­fect storm. The Maori pop­u­la­tion was still largely ru­ral, and many re­mote set­tle­ments may have missed the im­mu­nity con­ferred by the mild first wave of the pan­demic.

Land loss had im­pov­er­ished many Maori com­mu­ni­ties, tra­di­tional food-gath­er­ing had been cur­tailed, and stan­dards of nu­tri­tion and hous­ing were gen­er­ally low.

Com­mu­nal life with crowded sleep­ing whare, fa­cil­i­tated the spread of droplet in­fec­tion. Many Maori had lungs dam­aged by wide­spread TB and to­bacco smok­ing. Tra­di­tional herbal medicines were in­ef­fec­tive against pneu­mo­nia.

How did the flu get into New Zealand? At the time it was com­monly be­lieved that the pas­sen­ger ship Ni­a­gara had brought the flu, along with Prime Min­is­ter Massey, re­turn­ing from a war con­fer­ence. His po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies ac­cused him of pulling strings to avoid quar­an­tine.

But this has been shown to be a myth. Auck­land was at the time still in the grip of the mild first wave in­fluenza, which lasted from mid-Septem­ber to midOc­to­ber. The most likely sources of new in­fec­tion in Oc­to­ber 1918 were troop­ships re­turn­ing with hun­dreds of sick and wounded sol­diers from camps in south­ern Eng­land where the se­vere sec­ond wave of the pan­demic had been rag­ing. Many were now symp­tom­less car­ri­ers of the virus. They scat­tered to their homes and a fort­night later se­vere in­fluenza burst out al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously up and down the coun­try.

This co­in­cided with the end of the war, and in many towns peo­ple gath­er­ing to cel­e­brate the Ar­mistice un­wit­tingly spread the se­vere flu even more widely.

In­fluenza was de­clared a no­ti­fi­able dis­ease on Novem­ber 6 and schools, bars, bil­liard sa­loons and dance halls were closed. Very soon shops and of­fices and fac­to­ries were also clos­ing for lack of staff and cus­tomers.

The whole coun­try seemed to shut down for a fort­night in the mid­dle of Novem­ber, and streets were de­serted apart from hur­ry­ing am­bu­lances or vol­un­teers door-knock­ing to find the worst cases. Tem­po­rary in­fluenza wards were set up in schools and church halls – even un­der race­course grand­stands in Hast­ings, Reefton and Gore – and soup kitchens were hastily ar­ranged. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides helped to dis­trib­ute food and medicine to stricken house­holds.

So many peo­ple were dy­ing at the same time that un­der­tak­ers could not cope, and coun­cils com­man­deered trucks and vans to take coffins to the ceme­ter­ies, where teams of men were dig­ging graves. In Auck­land spe­cial trains took coffins from the city to Waikumete Ceme­tery twice a day for a fort­night to clear the back­log. All vic­tims were buried in­di­vid­u­ally in num­bered plots with min­is­ters of re­li­gion of­fi­ci­at­ing. But these were mostly pau­pers’ graves, and no head­stones were ever erected.

Auck­land cer­tainly had the first of the flu pan­demic in New Zealand, but not the worst of it. The fi­nal count was 1128 Pakeha flu deaths in Auck­land, a death rate of 7.6 per 1000. Welling­ton lost 773 res­i­dents, at a rate of 8 per 1000. Christchurch lost 458 at a rate of 4.9, and Dunedin even fewer, 273 at 3.9 per 1000.

Some towns such as Cam­bridge, Tau­ranga, New Ply­mouth, Nel­son, West­port and Ti­maru had low death rates, pos­si­bly be­cause they had gained more im­mu­nity from the mild first wave, while oth­ers such as Hast­ings, Dan­nevirke, Haw­era, Master­ton, Am­ber­ley, Ka­iapoi, Te­muka, Oa­maru, Win­ton and In­ver­cargill had high rates.

A few un­lucky places had ex­cep­tion­ally high death rates: Huntly, In­gle­wood, Tau­marunui, Tai­hape, Den­nis­ton, Owaka, Win­ton. The worst Pakeha death rate was at Night­caps in South­land, where nearly all the adults were stricken and left with­out care: they

suf­fered a Maori death rate of 25 per 1000.

For­tu­nately it is in the na­ture of in­fluenza out­breaks that they peak and die away rapidly. Most places were clear of fresh flu cases by early De­cem­ber 1918, and the eco­nomic ef­fects were neg­li­gi­ble. But for thou­sands of fam­i­lies life would never be the same again. More than 6400 Pakeha chil­dren had lost a par­ent, and 135 had lost both par­ents.

New Zealand coped well with the 1918 flu. Neigh­bours helped neigh­bours, and com­mu­ni­ties or­gan­ised promptly to help the stricken – helped no doubt by four years of wartime pro­pa­ganda to vol­un­teer and ‘‘do your duty’’.

How well would New Zealand cope with a sim­i­lar cri­sis to­day? Though we have an ex­cel­lent Pan­demic Plan, man­dat­ing a ‘‘whole of gov­ern­ment’’ re­sponse and in­cor­po­rat­ing many of the lessons learned from 1918, New Zealand has changed and all sorts of things could go wrong.

The best ad­vice is to be pre­pared and self-re­liant, with stocks of face masks, as­pirin and parac­eta­mol, bed­pans and spare sheets. And be nice to your neigh­bours. They just might save your life.

Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury Emer­i­tus his­tory pro­fes­sor Ge­of­frey Rice is the au­thor of Black Flu 1918: the Story of New Zealand’s Worst Pub­lic Health Disas­ter, Can­ter­bury Univer­sity Press, 2017.

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