In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic impacting Sunraysia, Mildura Rural City Library technician, Helen Stone has compiled a fascinating collection of stories and information relating to the last pandemic that impacted Australia and the Mildura region in 1919, when the Spanish flu spread around the globe during World War One.
The book, which is available to be read online or copies are available for loan at all of the council libraries and they also have a copy of an e-book available through their ‘BorrowBox App, details the way in which life was affected more than 100 years ago, when the virus appeared in Mildura, something that very much mirrors what has happened here in the last 12 months during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and border closures.
Although there wasn’t anywhere near the same level of international travel in that era, and travelling by ship was the primary means of spreading the disease, the virus still nonetheless made its way to Australian shore and eventually to Mildura and the surrounding region. Despite a swift quarantine response in October 1918, cases of Spanish flu began to appear in Australia in early 1919.
About 40 per cent of the population fell ill and around 15,000 died as the virus spread through Australia. Border closures just like we experienced recently came into force, and the river crossing between Mildura and NSW was under lockdown.
“The statistics that were recorded here in Mildura indicate that there were about 30 deaths on this side of the river, and there were at least six that were from the Wentworth region, Helen said.
“Masks weren’t compulsory in Victoria, but were recommended, but when the pandemic was declared, New South Wales mandated the wearing of masks and they closed the border to Victoria at the same time.
“People did survive it and like COVID, it hit people very quickly, and if they succumbed, they died soon after.”
Helen said that oddly enough it wasn’t the elderly or young children so much who fell victim to the flu, it was fit men.
“That was interesting to see, although it wasn’t only men, there were some women and older people, but predominately it was the healthy men,” she said.
The border lockdown back then saw the ferry or punt across the river between Victoria and NSW closed down there wasn’t a bridge there at the time.
Even the former Carnegie Library investigated using a fumigator to sanitise the books and the library was closed just like it was with COVID.
Helen said that the medical community, just like it did last year here in Mildura, began preparing for the virus’s impending arrival in the region.
“There were three stages. The first stage local areas were in charge of preparing for the possibility of an outbreak,” she said.
“This involved the sitting up of an observation ward at the hospital. Initially there were a few cases of what they called mild flu, and they thought that was a bit of a trigger, and so they closed the observation ward, and then a few weeks later, the first person was reported to have died from the flu.
“Following the first victim’s death, a few others also died and then it seemed to fizzle-out until the big onslaught in July and August in 1919 – that’s when most of the people died.”
Helen said the local hospital was totally overwhelmed with cases.
“They were worried about the virus coming up from Melbourne because people could still travel up here on the train,” she said.
“The concern was that there were a lot of people from Wentworth who had been at a conference in Melbourne and who were returning to Mildura and may bring the virus with them, and so they had to quarantine in Mildura for a few days before they would let them back into NSW.
“So there are so many similarities with what has happened this time around. The same sort of social distancing and cough etiquette was in place too.”
As part of her research for the book, Helen searched through a burial register that the library holds, and from that she was able to identify the deaths from the pandemic in the region. “Between 1891 to 1928 there is a section from July and August 1919 and there is a whole page of deceased and their cause of death linking it to the flu – pneumonia, influenza and pneumonic influenza,” she said.
“They buried people very quickly – they would die and be buried that day or the next because there were concerns over the contagious nature of the virus.”
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is the deadliest in history and infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide − about one-third of the planet’s population -leading to the death of an estimated 20 to 50 million people worldwide. The 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world.
At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theatres and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march.