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History

03 Mar 2020

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Pandemic in Southbank

The recent outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) comes just over a century since the worldwide pandemic called the Spanish flu, which cost an estimated 20 to 40 million lives, more than the Great War. The two outbreaks are eerily similar.

Both started in densely populated areas (the first, despite the name, in Kansas, USA, and the second in China). The Spanish flu was particularly virulent and could strike with amazing speed and spread rapidly, generally transmitted by sneezing and coughing.

In Melbourne, the spread was uneven and more likely to occur in suburbs with large populations, such as Footscray, Brunswick and St Kilda. One of the hardest hit was South Melbourne and at the South Melbourne Orphanage, 80 young people were infected (some critically) in a 24-hour period.

Just like today, initial information was restricted, with wartime controls still in place in Europe. Australia was relatively isolated, with little international travel being undertaken (except for military returning home), and there were few of today’s extreme precautions for treating the outbreak. Dedicated hospital wards were established in places like the Melbourne Homeopathic, Exhibition Buildings, and Caulfield Racecourse. Medical and nursing staff were at high risk of being infected. Treatment was rudimentary, generally consisting of complete bed rest and inoculation using the “A” vaccine, although the medical profession was divided about its effectiveness. Some companies, such as Aspro, claimed that their products were the most effective treatment and advertised that “Two Aspro Tablets a day should keep Spanish influenza away.”

In response to the outbreak, Victoria was placed in virtual quarantine. The New South Wales government prohibited rail traffic between the states, with some visitors unable to return to their home state. People were encouraged to wear masks in shops, hotels, churches and on public transport. Authorities banned meetings of more than 20 people and closed theatres, schools, racetracks, billiard halls and even hairdressers, but large crowds continued to gather at VFL football matches. Publicans were incensed when restrictions were placed on pubs within 24 kilometres of Elizabeth St, but not on churches, a reflection of the control that the wowsers were able to exert on public policy in those days. Bottled beer could be ordered by phone and delivered to houses.

South Melbourne Council equipped a temporary hospital at the Montague School, provided free inoculations at the Town Hall, employed nurses to visit affected families, and established a fund to support 60 families where the breadwinner could not work.

Information flow is virtually instant these days, via mobile devices and television screens. Today’s authorities had learnt some hard lessons from the outbreak of SARS in 2013, so were able to swing into action quickly to try and minimise the spread of the latest outbreak. The Spanish flu pandemic eventually ran out of puff – now we wait with trepidation to see the outcome of the Coronavirus •

Robin Grow

President - Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

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