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