Community Scoop

Black November: when neighbours risked their lives to help neighbours

Warren L 200x300Warren Lindberg

Chief Executive | Public Health Association of New Zealand

Following last year’s World War 1 commemoration, the names of those whose lives were lost and of the great battles – Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele, Monte Casino, the Coral Sea – are respectfully recalled on memorials around the country.

However, another event resulting in greater loss of life and far-reaching consequences has been barely noted outside academia – that is, the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Unfairly labelled at the time as the ‘Spanish’ flu, it is estimated to have killed at least 50 million people globally, including between 8 and 9,000 New Zealanders (around 1% of the total population), disproportionately Māori (estimated 5%).

Samoans have especial reason to remember the 1918 flu, following so soon after New Zealand’s seizure of Samoa from the Germans in 1915.  In November 1918 the NZ Administrator permitted flu-infected passengers to disembark from a NZ ship.  Within weeks, 90% of the Samoan population was infected; subsequently 30% of adult men, 22% of adult women and 10% of children died.

Sickness and death were not evenly distributed across the population. Because influenza is spread so easily via droplets from coughing and sneezing, it is particularly virulent where people live or work in close contact – in 1918 this included the armed forces and areas where men worked closely together such as mining. Unsurprisingly, Māori and others living communally or in over-crowded urban conditions with poor access to medical help were disproportionately affected.

Most influenza deaths occur from secondary infection from opportunistic pneumonia bacteria, and most can be avoided by vaccination. In NZ, the pneumococcal vaccine for babies is free, and there is a National Immunisation Register for everyone born since 2005. But old-fashioned hygiene – covering coughs and sneezes and hand-washing – are still the most reliable way to avoid infection.

In a world where globalisation and anti-microbial resistance expose us to new strains of familiar and unfamiliar diseases, the possibility of a pandemic as virulent as 1918 is a threat we all need to take seriously. Just as in 1918, every new threat to our health hits those already most disadvantaged.

New Zealand’s most thorough chronicler of the 1918 flu epidemic is Geoffrey Rice, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Canterbury, whose book Black November, first published in 1988 and updated in 2012, was motivated by his father’s childhood memory of the appalling sights he witnessed in the small timber and railway town of Taumarunui. A nine-year-old at the time, he recalled lighting fires in the morning in houses where the adults were ill, and finding a woman asleep in bed beside the body of her husband, blackened in death.

Professor Rice wrote this in a memory of the 1918 flu epidemic for the Stuff news website in November last year: “It has often been said that New Zealand’s losses in that war ‘forged the nation’ out of a collective sense of shared grief and loss. Yet it can also be argued that the experience of the 1918 flu, when neighbours risked their lives to help neighbours, and communities rallied to care for the sick, helped confirm the more admirable qualities of the Kiwi character: bravery, compassion, fairness, resourcefulness, good humour and optimism in the face of adversity”.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

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