Emergency military hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, United States in 1918 or 1919 (Photo: Creative Commons)

The lessons New Zealand learned from Spanish flu

‘Stay in your bubble’ didn’t exist 100 years ago, but our ancestors would want us to know how essential it is to do so, says Jai Breitnauer.

It was a warm but slightly grey January day in 2019 when I pulled the car over to the side of SH1, just south of Temuka. Although it was the middle of the school holidays, the road was relatively quiet. My husband was asleep (this is why I drive!) and my kids were engaged in some backseat game of Rock, Paper, Scissors that now involved blaster rays and being sat on by mountains. They didn’t notice as I slipped out of the car and stood on the corner of Huirapa Street.

Arowhenua is a small settlement, even by Aotearoa’s standards. Behind me was the white façade of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, built in 1931; opposite me, the arch of the war memorial. All around were the hallmark flat fields of rural Canterbury, while way down Huirapa street sat the marae. Although I’d never been here before, I was aware that it had barely changed from a century ago, when it was just a small pā at the end of a muddy road with a community of 130 Māori living traditionally, in close quarters. I knew this because I’d read, and written, about Arowhenua while researching my book about Spanish flu.

Officially, Arowhenua comes under the umbrella of Temuka, which in 1918 had a total of 1,633 residents. But when you are looking at the impact of Spanish flu on New Zealand, it’s important to make the distinction between the two locales. This is because while statistics don’t lie, they often tell more than one story – and although only 17 people in Temuka died of flu, nine of them came from Arowhenua. Nine people out of 130 equals a death rate of 69.2 per 1000. In contrast, the Pākehā death rate was just 5.5 per 1000.

Spanish flu appeared mysteriously toward the end of the Great War, wiping out an estimated 100 million people worldwide over 24 months. I spent most of 2018 writing about it, and it was a weird time for me. I was living rurally with my family, and my older son was very unwell. I spent most days isolated in a cabin with a beautiful view of the sea, and my head filled with the death and destruction of this virus.

I hadn’t prepared myself for how much I would be affected by the stories I uncovered during my research. The young woman in Budapest who died sitting on a bench in the middle of the city, because emergency services were too overwhelmed to help her and onlookers were too scared. The men working the mines in South Africa who plunged to their deaths in an elevator cage after the operator momentarily blacked out from his flu symptoms. The boy in Washington whose parents, funeral home directors, had coffins stacked through their home because the grave diggers couldn’t bury them fast enough. But of all the heartbreak that spanned the globe from Alaska to Tasmania, it is the suffering of our Māori brothers and sisters that weighs heaviest.

Geoffrey Rice, emeritus professor of history at Canterbury University, researched the impact of Spanish flu on New Zealand extensively during the 1980s, gathering many first-hand accounts. He calculated that Māori were seven times more likely than Europeans in New Zealand to die of Spanish flu. Measles, whopping cough and land wars had already more than halved the pre-European Māori population. Poverty and inequality wasn’t helping either, and general immunity to European diseases among tangata whenua was low. The public health decisions made when Spanish flu arrived in New Zealand in the spring of 1918 put many lives at risk, but they placed Māori, as well as lower working class Pākehā, right in the firing line.

An influenza medicine depot in Christchurch for ‘poor’ people. Taken by an unknown photographer 4 December 1918 (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library)

The arrival of flu here also coincided with the Armistice. It was a time of celebration. The war was finally coming to an end and people, having been cloistered away through years of hardship, were taking to the streets in joy. Parades were planned, agricultural shows were well-attended, people were gathering together in mutual relief. And through those gatherings the disease spread like wildfire. In Temuka, the 17 deaths came after the Armistice day celebrations – an event that went ahead even though regional authorities were aware of Spanish flu.

In Auckland, almost 8% of the population died from the flu outbreak. If that happened today, there would be 136,000 bodies to bury. Although the city’s official Armistice day celebration was cancelled, a false announcement a few days earlier on November 8 had seen people dancing in the streets for hours. This was in spite of the influenza outbreak that had been systematically infecting citizens since late October. People had a casual attitude toward flu; it was not seen a serious disease. But the consequences were dire.

We can to some extent forgive our forebears for their mistakes. The world was at war. Poverty was rife. Communication was limited. Plus, in 1918, we still didn’t really know what viruses were. It was not until the electron microscope was invented in the 1930s that we were able to see and study them for the first time. Decision makers were always on the back foot, making policy to fight fires rather than prevent them from starting.

Today, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot make the argument that we weren’t fully informed. We have decades of social history and substantial epidemiological research around viruses to help the government make decisions. The public understanding of what viruses are is high. Thanks to the Health Act 1920, ushered in by the Spanish flu disaster, New Zealand has built a public health system that is relatively robust, and has many dedicated healthcare professionals at the ready. And then there is the advice that wasn’t understood or well communicated a century ago – stay at home, wash your hands, keep two metres away from others if you do have to go out, and report symptoms early.

So, now it is over to us, the public. The outcome really does lie in our own hands, so remember: he waka eke noa. We can beat this together, if we stick to the plan.

Jai Breitnauer is the author of the book The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History (2019).



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