New Zealands Greatest Epidemic
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In 1918, two waves of influenza spread across the country, the first being followed by a virile wave which swept through the country from October through to December. Every one was personally affected one way or another and special restrictive measures were imposed as the death rate rose sharply. People became depressed as it was not just a matter of months but rather years before all the adverse effects of the epidemic were overcome. Even today many elderly citizens remember its virulence. Many people were treated for the 'flu by being wrapped in cotton wadding and flannel. At the time there was a lot of discussion and disagreement as to the correct way to treat the influenza patients. Families were left isolated in their houses for days, only collecting bread and milk after it had been delivered. People became too afraid to visit for fear of catching the disease.The disease was carried from the sick soldiers and crew returning home from WWI on the SS Niagara, which arrived in Auckland the 12th of October. The ship turned out to be a great talking point although the disease had been reported well before the ships arrival it was blamed for the deaths. By the mid. November the influenza epidemic in Auckland had peaked, with Auckland having approx. 2000 deaths alone. It then spread rapidly south causing an alarming death rate of 1860 people throughout the country in only eight weeks. By the 13th week it had begun to decline. The total number of deaths from the disease or its complications were believed to be more than 6500 people. The outbreak occurred at a most inopportune time, as servicemen with severely lowered powers of resistance were returning to New Zealand and over 500 nurses and 228 of the country's doctors (an enormous proportion for the country), were still abroad on military service. Much of the medical care fell to volunteers and many paid with their own lives.
On October the 31st, the Mayor of Auckland Sir James Gunson, held a special meeting in the council chambers to form a committee to take what action as deemed necessary to help sufferers and to also cope with the epidemic. The Citizens' Committee, the Women's National Reserve, the St John Ambulance Brigade and Association and the Central Relief Committee gave indispensable services during November, providing care, attention, transport and food for the ailing.
To avoid wasting time the city was divided into 22 blocks, with each doctor being allocated a special area. The drastic shortage of hospital accommodation was relieved by the establishment of six temporary hospitals in schools and halls. Hotels and boarding houses assumed the aspect of hospitals as so many of the guests and members of the staff were affected. Even the Ellerslie racecourse was fitted up as a convalescent home. Inhalation chambers set up in various parts of the city were of doubtful value but were well intentioned.
A macabre sight was to be seen at Victoria Park and the Domain's Band stand being temporarily used as a mortuary, until Dr J.P. Frengley assistant district health officer, acted under the powers contained in section 50 of the public Health Act,1908, making an order "requiring all bodies of persons who have died from influenza or its complications to be buried forthwith." Special trains were provided to carry the bodies out to Waikumete Cemetery for burial.
There were very few volunteers to help. This was particularly noticeable in Auckland during the first week of November, and many complaints about selfishness appeared in the newspapers. However, the minority soon began to work together, exposing themselves to infection, coming across sorrow and destitution in their daily work. Schools in the Auckland district were closed from November the 5th to after the Xmas holidays. Places of entertainment, cinemas, billiards rooms, public halls and shooting galleries soon became prohibited to all ages. Hotels were among the last places to come under special jurisdiction, they did have restricted hours but were finally closed by Dr Frengley on November the 13th for only three days. Wellington also followed with the same type of restrictions. People engaged in public services suffered heavily during the epidemic. Seriously depleted staff reduced public transport such as buses and ferries to a bare minimum and even led to the temporary termination of the suburban railway service. The telephone exchange and also post and telegraph offices, were under very strained conditions as they continued to serve the public. Mail deliveries were maintained throughout. Other offices and factories either kept going with minimal staff or found it expedient to close down temporarily, diverting those not stricken to assist in the nursing of their ailing co workers.
Further reading can be found in a very interesting book by Dr Geoffrey Rice called 'Black November' which traces the origins of the epidemic and describes the ways in which the cities and the small country towns of New Zealand, each coped with the widespread illness and distress.