Our lives as individuals, families and communities has taken on a new normal in 2020 with the Covid19 pandemic.
A century ago, our ancestors were dealing with another pandemic; the Spanish Influenza.
In 1919, Australians had just lived through 4 years of war. Back then, it was not just the unknown of when social distancing may be lifted or the impacts of an economic depression (although that was to come as well), but the uncertainty of whether sons , husbands, brothers, cousins , neighbors, fighting overseas, and daughters and sisters enlisted as nurses and gone away across the ocean, were going to return. And if they did, what physical and emotional state would they be in? Of course there were no mobile phones or Skype to stay in touch; maybe an occasional letter or a postcard or, at worst, the dreaded ‘telegram’ being delivered.
And then, the war was over, but they had to survive another disaster; this one much closer to home. Peace turned out not to be as simple as had hoped for, a new mass killing was under way.
The Spanish influenza pandemic. In Australia, the virus became known as ‘pneumonic influenza’.
Three days after the Armistice had been signed, a ship carrying about 1200 soldiers arrived in Durban, South Africa and hearing the news, made plans to return home. Unfortunately, the town was stricken with the Spanish Flu and by the time new supplies were loaded, the soldiers were infected. The crowded conditions onboard meant that by the time they arrive at Freemantle, more than 300 cases had been reported.
The Commonwealth Immigration Authorities initially refused permission for the soldiers to disembark. Finally, the most unwell soldiers were ferried ashore to the Quarantine Station. For those left onboard the conditions worsened. A 7-day incubation period with no new cases was required, but new infections and deaths continued. There was widespread public outrage at the treatment of our soldiers as wrangling between the State Minister for Health and Immigration Authorities continued. The Returned Serviceman’s Association made threats to storm the ship. After 9 days the ship was ordered to depart. Finally, the soldiers were allowed to disembark at Torrens Quarantine Station, Adelaide.
It seems most likely that the flu came into the country via returning soldiers, many of whom broke quarantine as they wanted to be home with family and sweethearts.
The precise source of the first known infection – in Melbourne in January 1919 – was never discovered.
Despite a swift quarantine response, cases of the ‘pneumonic influenza’ began to spread.
On 28 January 1919 it was reported that: “Australia must now face the fact that the scourge which has taken so heavy a toll from the rest of the world has invaded her own frontiers.”
Victoria was declared infected and placed in quarantine.
Public meetings were prohibited. Travel in long-distance trains was restricted. In newspapers there were notices of public lectures; requests for volunteers to support medical officers in the event of an epidemic emergency; legal obligations for householders; advice on symptoms, prevention, and treatment. For a time, it was compulsory to wear a mask in the street. Places of entertainment such as theatres, cinemas and dance halls closed, as did churches.
Panic and fear of infection caused welcome-home parades and concerts to be postponed or cancelled. The returning soldiers were forced into quarantine before they could be reunited with their families and sweethearts.
It took a year but by end of 1919, the pandemic was over.
Australia’s death rate of 2.7 per 1000 of population was one of the lowest recorded of any country during the pandemic, but that still meant 40 per cent of the population fell ill and around 12 – 15,000 (from a population of just over 5 million) died as the virus spread throughout Australia.
Almost every member of every community rallied, and they supported each other, as they pulled together as a community staying at home and helping those struck down with the influenza.
As 2020 unfolds in a way we could never have imagined, we need to remember this. We do not need to thrive. We can cry behind closed doors, or while standing in the shower, It is okay to feel lost, but we do need to look to the future and believe it will eventually be okay again, but maybe with a new normal just like a 100 years ago.
Blessings to you and yours, from both of us and our families.
“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal. And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”