How Australia Survived The 1918 Spanish Flu

When they returned from World War I, Australian soldiers were expecting celebratory parades and teary reunions.

Instead, they were forced into face masks, greeted with thermometers shoved under tongues and needles poked into extremities -- and treated to a week in quarantine. Having survived bloody battle, they now watched in horror as brothers who fought alongside them on the frontline were struck down by an invisible enemy that neither they nor the medical professionals tasked with caring for them, had any real understanding of.

For three years -- from January 1918, when the virus mutated, bred and spread through overcrowded soldier’s quarters, to December 1920 when it had finally mutated into a less deadly strain -- the 'Spanish Flu' would infect half a billion people worldwide. The estimated death toll ranges from 17 to 50 million, depending on which data you follow.

Yet, Australia’s reaction to the disease was swift and successful, as quickly-implemented measures would largely contain the spread on our continent.

A group of nurses wearing masks in 1919. (Image: Macleay Museum, University of Sydney)

The nickname Spanish Flu was a misnomer born of a similar ignorance that fuels Donald Trump’s continued referral to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese’ flu.

“It appears that the Germans, in anticipation that the malady might be justly named German plague, sent broadcast a misleading name which they had craftily devised before the infection spread from Germany to other countries,” reported the Australasian in March of 1919.

Dr Nikki Stamp


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The truth was less crafty: many countries embroiled in World War I simply suppressed early news of the outbreak from the media in order to keep up wartime morale. This led to the false assumption that neutral country Spain, whose press freely reported on the scourge, was hit first and hit hardest; after the King of Spain contracted the virus, the name stuck.

Misinformation was rife during the outbreak, but the ‘fake news’ seemed to be coming from medical professionals hoping to outdo each other with quackery. There were hastily assembled ‘cures’ that ranged from sweating powders, and ‘fresh air’, to an unholy concoction of cinnamon, castor oil, menthol, mustard and chloroform.

Arrival at quarantine camp in Wallangara, 7 May 1919. (Image: State Library of Victoria)

Doctors and scientists bickered over the effectiveness of face masks, the public didn’t trust inoculations, while the manufacturers of Bovril, a beef stock used to make a hot winter drink to ward off the cold, campaigned hard, claiming to “prevent influenza and colds by fortifying the system against their attacks".

The first infected ships to hit Australia didn’t come until October 1918, 10 months after the virus first presented itself in humans. During the following three months, 300 cases were treated and contained in Sydney quarantine stations, with numerous soldiers dying of the virus.

Ships that arrived in Sydney without any reported cases enjoyed less strict quarantining measures, and eight months after the first ships arrived, Dr Cumpston, Director of Quarantine was satisfied that Australia now enjoyed “absolute immunity".

This was not the case.

If you required assistance, one of these SOS cards proved valuable. (Image: National Library of Australia)

Since at least January, the virus had made its way into the general population. There were reports of ship medics falsifying logs so they wouldn’t have to endure further isolation after weeks at sea. There were also cases of soldiers breaking out of quarantine and re-entering the general population -- in February, close to 1,000 soldiers left a quarantine camp in Manly after finding it infested with snakes.

As with our current situation, people ignored the restrictions in place and the virus spread throughout the country.

Once the 'Spanish Flu' was detected in the public, the Commonwealth moved quickly. Under new powers that had been granted the previous November, states could have their borders locked off as soon as the Chief Health Officers declared an infection. The state would then remain an island of sorts until the Commonwealth decided it was safe. This was the plan, and it made sense.

A wounded soldier also suffering from influenza with two Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses at the Randwick Military Hospital. (Image: AAP)

However, Victoria refused to play ball, not willing to officially acknowledge that the 'Spanish Flu' had entered its borders. A soldier in NSW came down with the flu, and when it was discovered he had entered the state via a Melbourne train, the states began feuding. NSW locked off its border to Victoria, which responded by refusing to quarantine.

This forced Tasmania into a corner. Although its livelihood relied upon nautical travel from the mainland, the state was incensed by the flagrant disregard for its citizen’s safety and they cut themselves off. The state’s first reported case wasn’t until August 1919, and they subsequently boasted the lowest per-capita infection rates in the world.

Western Australia, meanwhile, rallied against the Commonwealth’s decision to stop the Trans-Australian rail, claiming it impacted business and isolated Perth, the world’s most isolated city, further still. Queensland imposed strict quarantining measures on those wishing to enter the state, including inoculations, and three 10-minute stints each day in an inhalation chamber.

A 1919 newspaper illustration by cartoonist Charles Nuttall. (Image: National Archives of Australia)

New South Wales moved the swiftest but suffered the most. On January 28, just after the very first case was identified, the state swiftly shut down all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and indoor entertainment centres. By February 3, they were serious, shutting down the racetracks and hotels -- the last bastions of relief for many -- and requiring all members of the public to wear face masks on public transport. By April, university students and factory workers were also required to wear masks, and the highlight of the calendar, the Royal Easter Show, was sadly cancelled.

Australia avoided a face mask shortage by imposing a price ceiling, thus avoiding the hoarding and price gouging we are seeing one century later. Many Australians, however, felt the masks would increase the risk of infection -- a theory fanned by media misinformation.

Anthony Morris


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By the time the flu had abated at the end, 13,000 Australians had died at a rate of roughly 230 per 100,000. This puts us with the most successful of nations in combating the spread, although our geographical isolation was no doubt a contributing factor.

A century later, we are less isolated, but experiencing the same issues: media fan-flaming, conflicting medical advice, confusing rules and regulations, states overriding the country as a whole, and a portion of the public who are largely indifferent to the spread until it impacts them.

But it's 2020. Surely we can do better.


Featured Image: AAP