April 2020 | Scott Freidman

The Spanish flu lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. 500 million people were infected and the death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 100 million. Australia was not immune and it is believed to have been carried to our shores through returning WWI soldiers. Australia lost about 15,000 people. 

How did the NSW government respond to the Spanish flu pandemic?

In fact, very quickly!

In November of 1918 two groups were set up to co-ordinate the State’s response: The Consultative Medical Council and The Metropolitan Influenza Administrative Committee.

In January 1919 the State issued the first of a series of ‘proclamations’: “libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls, and places of indoor resort for public entertainment” were all to be closed. The ‘proclamations’ that followed included a requirement for all members of the public to wear masks covering the mouth and nose as well as NSW border closures.

To manage the economic impact of the pandemic the NSW government assented to the Influenza Epidemic Relief Act, 1919. This act provided an avenue for claims to be made for “compensation on account of loss sustained by reason of the closing down of business places, etc., consequent on the influenza epidemic”. This compensation was not available immediately and there was significant debate concerning the appropriate assessment of damages. As it turned out, only £30,019 of the total £214,094 claimed was agreed to be paid by the NSW government.

The Federal Government also attempted to bring about uniformity in each State’s response to the pandemic. This plan was unsuccessful with each State government implementing measures as it saw fit. State governments also failed to report cases of infection to the Commonwealth in line with resolutions agreed upon at a planning conference involving all States held in November 1918.  It has been said that throughout the Spanish flu pandemic “the Commonwealth of Australia passed into recess”.

Additionally, the NSW government initiated a number of rather unique responses including an influenza-dedicated Sydney ambulance service and a system by which people in need of assistance could affix an ‘SOS’ sign to their house façade.

How does that response compare to our current government’s COVID-19 response?

There are a number of striking similarities between the NSW government response to the Spanish flu pandemic and the response to COVID-19. For example, the mass-gathering bans and closure of public places.

However, it is likely that the biggest difference will be through our current government’s implementation of social tracing – a technology that was not in existence in 1918.  The Federal government is currently developing a high-tech coronavirus app called ‘TraceTogether’ that will track the movement of users in a bid to save lives and ease social gathering restrictions. The app is planned to operate on an opt-in basis and will only be effective if 40% of the population participate.  It is expected that the NSW government will cooperate with its implementation.