PANDEMIC PARALLELS 100 YEARS APART
New Zealand, like everywhere else in the world, was hit hard when the pandemic first arrived. Shipping services were disrupted, leading to supply chain delays and soaring prices. Flour was hard to find.
Many workplaces and schools closed. In an attempt to stamp out the virus, buildings were disinfected and people were told not to travel. The hardest hit were often minority communities living in substandard housing. Funerals were prohibited. Those suspected of having caught the virus were quarantined.
But come November 12, New Zealand broke into celebration. Fear of the virus dissipated as news of the armistice between the Allies and Germany called a close to World War 1. Armistice Day is November 11, but news travelled slowly in 1918.
“No one really knew where it came from,” said Arnold Butterworth, who was a Gisborne police officer at the time.
Mr Butterworth, then in his 90s, was interviewed by Tairāwhiti Historical Society in the 1980s about his memories of 1918. Tairāwhiti Museum holds a copy.
“It seemed to go against the wind and the tide, it expanded. Wherever it went there were thousands, if not millions dying.
“In no time, it had moved to America. It was down in South America. South Africa. All over Europe and Russia, down through all the Asiatic counties, gradually getting closer to New Zealand, travelling with great speed, leaving death and insanity behind.”
Although over 100 years separate the 1918 pandemic from today's, much of what Mr Butterworth says in the recording applies to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Doctors and police weren't quite sure we were prepared for it.”
Mr Butterworth said the Government hoped New Zealand would be spared from the 1918 influenza pandemic, being an island at the bottom of the world.
“I'm not sure where it hit first, but it was very prevalent in Auckland before it came to Gisborne.
“In Gisborne, the first experience I had with it was when I met a bushman who seemed to be in good health.”
He spoke to the man then walked some 50 yards down the street before they were stopped by people on bicycles, “Hey constables, there is a man collapsed off the street”.
“I turned around and went back, and he was dead on the footpath.
“The first thing I noticed about him was his lips had turned blue and appeared to be swollen.
“I took him down to the Gisborne morgue, carrying him in the carrier's cart. When I got down to the morgue, possibly 20 minutes after, he was black from head to foot.”
Today that virus is commonly known as the Spanish Flu, but in 1918 New Zealand it was called the Black Flu.
It didn't take long before the hospitals filled up.
Doctors and nurses became sick. Receptionists donned scrubs.
“The hospitals were full - private and public,” said Mr Butterworth.
During the outbreak of the virus, he was sent as an escort “with a certified lunatic” to the Auckland mental hospital.
Mr Butterworth said he took a trip through Ponsonby down to Three Lamps and came across men digging holes for the dead.
“I was told there was 380 there . . . the stench of the disinfectant and the human decay was something terrible.”
When Mr Butterworth returned to Gisborne, he was sent to an inhalation chamber for treatment.
“There was a man waiting there, he wasn't a doctor, but he'd been trained to give us inhalations through the nostrils with a mask.”
After the masks, “they would spray our mouths way back to the tonsils, it nearly choked us”.
In a public meeting, a Dr Wilson (only his last name is mentioned) said the inhalation chambers — used all over New Zealand — were “the only means of reaching germs that went down into the lungs”.
Today we know the inhalation chambers were not just useless but often harmful, forcing crowds into enclosed spaces and heightening the risk of contagion.
On top of that, the chemicals damaged the body's natural protection “because a strong mixture would inflame the nasal tissue — if it hadn't already been burnt by the steam — and render the person even more susceptible to influenza,” wrote Skye Wishart in a 2018 NZ Geographic article.
Mr Butterworth said at the end of the process patients went into a “chlorine dip” and were given a “white spray in there that made you feel like vomiting”.
But fear of death seemingly had people lining up for abuse.
On November 26, the Herald reported inhalation chambers were busy despite unfavourable weather.
On the one day, 150 people stepped into the chamber in Gladstone Road, 88 into the mission hall and 43 in Mangapapa.
Drinking is known to have spiked during Covid-19 and Gisborne residents were not shy of a tipple during the Black Flu.
At a public meeting in November 1918, at the height of the pandemic here, councillors considered closing churches and bars.
Gisborne borough councillor De Costa replied, “whisky keeps the germs away”, which received laughter from the room.
A Dr Sharp was quoted by the Herald recommending a teaspoon dose “of the proper spirit” every 24 hours.
The flu wasn't the only thing killing Kiwis.
“The police had great trouble with the numbers of suicides. People had gone through great stress and hardship,” remembered Mr Butterworth.
In less than two months, at least 9000 New Zealanders had died - equal to about half the deaths from four years of New Zealand soldiers fighting in World War 1.
This was when the population was only just over a million.
“The best estimates of global mortality from the three waves of the 1918–19 flu are close to 60 million, or three times the estimated total of deaths caused by the First World War,” wrote New Zealand historian Geoffrey Rice.
But the deaths were not distributed equally.
Poverty, poor nutrition and poor housing all contributed to the overall rate of Māori deaths being eight times higher than for Europeans.
Other factors were high rates of tuberculosis and other respiratory infections among Māori, along with widespread tobacco smoking — which created a “perfect storm” for the vulnerable population.
Although today's Government has been criticised for the vaccine rollout to Māori communities, there is room for hope.
In an interview with The Hui, Ngāti Porou Hauora CEO Rose Kahaki said the Māori organisation was probably working the best it ever had with the DHB.
“I believe the reason for that is because we are all very concerned that we want the best outcome for everyone in Tairāwhiti.”
Regardless, Māori are under-vaccinated when compared with the rest of the population, with many not trusting the vaccine.
As of Friday this week, only 73 percent of Maori in Tairāwhiti have had their first dose and 56 percent have had their second.
Nationally, 90 percent of the general population have had their first dose and 80 percent have had their second.
Indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata told The Hui she does not blame people who do not trust the system.
“I don't trust the system, but my decisions aren't based upon trust in the system, my decisions are based on the relationships of trust that I have with Māori providers, Māori experts, Māori doctors and people who have put in the time to understand what's going on.”
To close the gap between Māori and the rest of the population, health providers are going to the people.
Te Aroha Kanarahi Trust, of which Ms Ngata is a trustee, started a Givealittle page for a mobile clinic to go door-to-door vaccinating Ngāti Porou against Covid-19.
Within two days the group raised over $100,000 and now the clinic is travelling around the Coast taking the vaccine to rural populations, even vaccinating the East Cape chapter of the Mongrel Mob.
That is on top of the work the Tairāwhiti iwi, Māori health providers and Hauora Tairāwhiti District Health Board are doing to vaccinate Māori.
At least there is a choice of medicine today. In 1918 there were no antiviral drugs available. The world's first antiviral drug was not approved until 1963.
The “cures” in 1918 were often worse than the disease.
Like in the past, today people have turned to quack cures.
The most infamous was when former American President Donald Trump suggested injecting bleach to cure the virus.
In 1918 there were plenty of snake oils.
Shoppers could buy Fluenzol, labelled “The Magic Cure for Influenza” or anti-influenza cinnamon pills.
As of yet, it seems the Delta Covid-19 outbreak has not made its way to Gisborne, but when it does the population has access to weapons against the virus.
Not only do vaccines protect us, especially the vulnerable, but new oral antiviral pills are available to treat those who have Covid-19.
Although there are similarities between the past and now, there has never been another time in history when the human race has so many defences against the invisible attacker.