In the early 21st century anxiety over the danger of avian influenza virus H5N1 revived memories of New Zealand's worst disease outbreak, the lethal influenza pandemic of 1918. In two months New Zealand lost about half as many people to influenza as it had in the whole of the First World War.
Many people believed that the severe form of influenza that struck New Zealand between October and December 1918 was caused by the arrival of ‘a deadly new virus’ aboard the Royal Mail liner Niagara on 12 October. But Geoffrey Rice, author of Black November: The 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, suggests that the influenza aboard the Niagara was probably ‘a last fling of the mild first wave of the pandemic’ which had been prevalent in the country during September. The remaining ‘plausible possibilities’ are that the severe form was a mutation of the existing mild form, or that it was a hybrid of the mild form and an overseas variant which may or may not have arrived on the Niagara.
However the pandemic arose by the time it eased in December the death toll had topped 8600. Maori suffered heavily, at least 2160 died. But death did not occur evenly among Maori or the country as a whole. Some communities were decimated; others escaped largely unscathed. Rice notes that the only places struck with any degree of uniformity in mortality were military camps.
There were consistencies in the way in which the country responded. This was due in part to a circular telegram that the Health Minister, George Russell, issued to all borough councils and town boards. Central committees were established to coordinate relief efforts, areas were divided into blocks or districts, each with its own ‘depot or bureau’. Inhalation sprayers were set up to disperse a ‘medically useless’ solution of zinc sulphate to the public, and streets and public buildings were disinfected. It was common to close or restrict opening hours for public facilities and businesses, and to cancel or postpone public events and gatherings. The medical workforce was reduced due to the First World War, and volunteers were widely relied upon whether in their own household or community.
The epidemic was disruptive and deadly and the public sought answers from the government. What they received was ‘a major reorganisation in the form of the 1920 Health Act’ which Rice describes as ‘the most useful legacy of the 1918 influenza pandemic’.
Considering the number of lives lost during pandemic ;it is surprising that it has not had greater ‘prominence in national histories and public monuments’. Rice suggests that this is because it struck during peacetime. Had it not its ‘mark on the collective memory may have been more distinct’.
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