Everything old is new again: Spanish Flu vs COVID Pandemic


spanish flu covid pandemic
Image: The Australasian, 15 Feb 1919

Reading newspaper articles from the time of the Spanish Flu feels depressingly familiar. Indeed, it’s déjà vu all over again. Anti-vaxxers, deniers, conspiracy theorists, profiteers, and quacks grabbed the headlines then, as they do during the COVID pandemic.

“People were different back then,” apologists love to chant about days gone by.

But, if those know-nothings actually read history, they would learn — if the past teaches us anything — it’s that people don’t change much. Some of us also don’t learn much.

Anti-vaxxers

Anti-vaxxers disputed medical science long before the Spanish Flu or the COVID pandemic.

In 1886, the Melbourne Weekly Times reported on mobs hanging Jenner in effigy. No, not Caitlyn or Kylie. Dr Edward Jenner, the father of immunology. Jenner pioneered immunisation with his smallpox vaccine, following in the footsteps of Chinese inoculators of centuries before.

Smallpox was history’s second-deadliest disease, killing 20–60% of infected adults and over 80% of infected children. Why don’t we ever hear of it now? Because, thanks to vaccination, it’s a thing of the past. But, in the century before its eradication, the ‘speckled monster’ killed half a billion people.

But don’t tell anti-vaxxers that.

As the Weekly Times wrote then, “To argue with such people is useless. Nor will they give credit to facts and statistics.”

According to an 1893 letter to the Australasian, vaccination “increases leprosy, cancer, consumption, smallpox, blindness, & etc. Unless stopped, mankind will become toothless.”

That must be why we see so many blind gummy lepers on Instagram!

The same writer also insisted that vaccination spread syphilis. (Perhaps someone misunderstood when the doctor said ‘just one small prick’.)

In 1913, ‘Anti-Vax’ wrote to the Brisbane Courier warning that vaccination scars were ‘the Mark of the Beast’.

I suspect Anti-Vaxx is still alive, posting to Facebook about the microchip Bill Gates snuck into COVID vaccines. Having only had my first shot, this writer cannot yet update Windows through sheer mind power. But I do pick up free WiFi. That at least saves me wearing a tinfoil hat. Needless to say, I worry that 5G Gates tracks me via the microchip. I intend emailing Bill to let him know I only visit all those webcam porn sites for research.

Prevention is better than cure

Before vaccines became available during the COVID pandemic, various figures promoted unproven treatments and cures.

Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro famously hyped hydroxychloroquine. Trump even pondered the efficacy of injecting bleach. Pete Evans attempted to sell a $15,000 light machine while Lorna Jane copped a $40,000 fine for a line of anti-viral activewear.

The Spanish Flu was no different.

The Coffs Harbour Advocate prescribed kerosene!

“One of the finest things is to put kerosene on your fingertips and put up each nostril; gargle with it, and swallow a teaspoonful now and then — say, once a day. The gargling and putting of kerosene up each nostril you can do as often as you like.”

As often as you like. Fabulous. I can hardly wait.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin put no faith in kerosene, preferring whisky.

“Medical opinion has always endorsed the moderate use of whisky. Doctors found it an effective weapon against Spanish Influenza.”

Yep. Getting pissed always helps.

Meanwhile, Tamworth’s Daily Observer reported on Mr Tonkin’s application of an onion poultice to the feet of a sufferer.

“I got to work and the man showed much improvement. I treated him with the onions and he lived for five days. If we had got to him earlier, we might have saved him.”

Tonkin tortured a dying man by strapping onions to his bunions and judged that an improvement? You’re a tool, Tonkin. Your poor victim probably wished he could shove kerosene-coated fingers up his nostrils. I know where I’d tell you to shove it — complete with flaming kero — after all, it is a place where the sun don’t shine.

Woods Great Peppermint Cure

Perhaps the most cynical profiteer was Sydney pharmacist W. E. Woods.

Woods was a poet,
And he knowed it;
Whipping up several lines of verse,
About the influenzic curse;
Promising in rhyme,
A cure positively sublime.

“Ho! the fortune-teller was paid her fee,
For a dollar she read my palm for me;
And told me I’d die of the Spanish Flu.
It made me wince, but it didn’t come true,
I caught the flu, and felt terrible bad,
So I took to my bed, forlorn and sad,
But I foiled my fate with that remedy sure,
Unfailing Woods Great Peppermint Cure.”

Spanish Flu

Australia avoided the first two waves of the pandemic by imposing a maritime quarantine. As during the COVID pandemic, being an isolated place with no land borders initially provided protection other countries did not enjoy. But the borders could not stay closed forever. By the end of 1918, 131,000 Australians wanted to return home after their war service.

Meanwhile, bickering broke out over the origin of the virus.

The Cairns Post claimed a ‘high medical authority’ attributed the emergence of the disease to the use of poison gas by the Germans during WWI.

“The after-effects favoured the growth of a germ previously unknown to medical science.”

The paper ignored that British and American gases used the same active ingredients. But it was bullshit anyway, and this was even before Murdoch bought the paper! Of course, the Murdoch Empire would not blame the Germans today. Anything bad that happens in 2021 can be traced back to either Annastacia Palaszczuk or Meghan Markle.

Towards the end of 1918, state and federal governments convened a version of today’s National Cabinet. With Zoom not yet available, health ministers travelled to Melbourne to plan a national response.

Just the normal flu

The first cases of the Spanish Flu also occurred in Melbourne. But those early cases were mild, prompting Alan Jones to insist, ‘It’s just the normal flu’.

(Of course, Alan was around then! He’s been here forever. There are cave paintings of him advising chiefs to ignore alarmists warning about the extinction of dinosaurs. ‘Pterodactyls will be around long after us’, he used to say. Alan knew a bit about pandemics too. He survived the Black Plague of the 1300s, caused as he told everyone who’d listen, by Greenies, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Meghan Markle and Greta Thunberg.)

By the time everyone but Alan agreed the Melbourne cases were indeed Spanish Flu, the virus escaped to Sydney.

The Sydney Sun voiced the general fury felt in NSW.

“Nero fiddled while Rome burnt, and the health authorities of Melbourne have fiddled with new names for a well-known pandemic disease while Melbourne became infected and in turn infected other capital cities.”

Lockdown

NSW immediately implemented a lockdown, closing schools and theatres and mandating mask-wearing. The Chairman of the Melbourne Board of Health mocked the Sydneysiders for insisting on masks in the outdoors but allowing people to take them off at home.

“It is in the homes where there are congregations of people that they should be worn.”

Meanwhile, Sydney police dragged anti-maskers before the courts where they received fines for refusing to obey the emergency laws. NSW also required Sydney residents to social distance, asking them to stay about a metre apart in public.

NSW imposed some restrictions on travel but Queensland saw those measures as insufficient and locked down the border.

The states and Commonwealth began bickering and the agreements previously made in Melbourne fell apart.

All sounds rather familiar.

But Australia suffered less than most with a death rate of 2.7 per 1000 of the population — much lower than the rest of the world. However, 15,000 people did die here, though that was a fraction of the estimated 50 million worldwide.

We will have to wait to know the final death toll from the COVID pandemic, but it seems, thanks to modern medical science, it will be much lower.

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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