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2020 versus 1919: is COVID-19 as bad as the ‘Spanish’ flu?

27 May 2020
An expert compares two watershed moments in Australian history
Dr Peter Hobbins, a leading expert on the history of the 'Spanish' flu in Australia, reckons with pandemics past and present - including their silver linings.

As we return to cautious normality, Australians are wondering whether the COVID-19 crisis might have become a calamity in their country. What if the virus had escaped, uncontrolled, into our community – just as the ‘Spanish’ influenza did in 1919?

“There are some striking parallels between 2020 and 1919”, said medical historian, Dr Peter Hobbins. An affiliate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Dr Hobbins has researched the intimate impact of the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic on Australia a century ago.

“During both pandemics, Australians were asked to abandon their normal lives to control the impact of the disease,” he said. “Since there was no vaccine and no cure, we had to rely on quarantine, supportive medical care and the goodwill of the community.”

“Then, as now, those measures drastically affected people’s jobs, family lives, worship and entertainment options.”

Cawley Madden, medical student, in protective clothing during influenza epidemic

Cawley Madden, medical student, in protective clothing during influenza epidemic. Credit: University of Sydney Archives (ref. no. G3_224_1050).

The drastic difference between the two pandemics was their differing direct impacts on Australians.

“In 1919, between one-quarter and one-third of all Australians contracted pneumonic influenza, more commonly known as ‘Spanish’ flu,” noted Dr Hobbins. “While many people had mild symptoms, similar to the seasonal influenza we still suffer each year, the outlook for severe cases was bleak.”

“Up to 15,000 Australians died from the influenza pandemic in 1919 – equivalent to the number who died on active service every year throughout World War I. For a nation of five million people, the impact was shocking.”

With Australians still recovering from the trauma and grief of four years of war, the pneumonic influenza brought fear and the risk of death into their suburbs, towns, neighbourhoods and homes. The University of Sydney did not escape, being forced to close for several months while medical students volunteered to provide desperately needed care.

A group of women wearing protective clothing during the 1919 influenza epidemic

Credit: Macleay Museum (ref. no. HP85.8.87).

Dr Peter Hobbins

Dr Peter Hobbins.

New South Wales imposed drastic restrictions on its residents; closing schools, churches, entertainment venues and important events such as agricultural shows and victory parades.

Yet there are similarities between the two pandemics. “For the first time in my career, I feel a real sense of what could be called ‘historical déjà vu’, in living through the COVID-19 lockdown,” Dr Hobbins said.

With ongoing concerns about a possible second wave of infection, he believes there are powerful lessons to be learned from 1919. “First, don’t relax too soon: in regions where regulations were pre-emptively loosened, such as Sydney, the second wave of pneumonic influenza led to even higher rates of infection and death than the first,” he said.

“Second, despite there being so few monuments to their bravery and sacrifice, in 1919, our community members pulled together to overcome the crisis.”

He has seen echoes of this in 2020: “Our response to fear and uncertainty hasn’t been panic or finger-pointing. Instead, we’ve self-isolated, maintained our social distancing and chalked rainbows on footpaths. In common with our ancestors in 1919, we have shared courage, community and hope.”

Hero image credit: Macleay Museum (ref. no. HP85.8.88).

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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