COVID cf. Spanish Flu

What can we learn from similarities and differences between events announced 101 years apart–to the day?

Australian historian writes hope and perspective 

In The Australian newspaper, reputed historian Geoffrey Blainey compared Australia’s situation with many around the world. Read it here

Creeping closer in 1919

Research for my recent book The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia drew interesting parallels between two pandemics. My great-uncle Karl Johan Back wrote to family in Finland on 6 May 1919:
The Spanish flu is getting closer and closer; it has not yet reached Mullumbimby but we fear it will be here any day. People have already come down with the Spanish flu in Lismore and Bangalow but according to papers no more than 500 have died

Close friends died, including the first person Grandad met after emigrating from Finland, Frank James, just 50 years old. Did this exacerbate qualms for Spanish Influenza in the damp Northern Rivers area of NSW?
In The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia: What drove the man who built it? I quote a reflective 1974 letter by WA Back:

In my little Ford car I was on the road every day, but the district was very wet and every February and March I was laid up with bronchitis. Dr. Kellas in Lismore gave me some good medicine which relieved it from time to time, but I felt l so tired that I could hardly walk. [Wife] Christina often used to say to me ‘Shake yourself up, you will be all right.’

Did this prompt WA Back to look over the border to sunny, dry Queensland? My latest book suggests so. 

The tragic human toll

On 27 June,1919, the Tweed Daily published an article titled The Coat Men.
The password in the street and on the roads today is: ‘Have you had it?’
The reply is generally ‘Yes,’ with a wan smile that in itself tells the tale of the ‘flu. It is easier now to count the population that has not had the ‘flu and those who have; convalescents are to be seen everywhere… they mostly have a big overcoat, which is worn throughout the day. They don’t walk—they just move along with slow and unmeasured step and as they come closer you perceive a pale and sickly face. It is the ‘flu alright. 
You enquire. ‘Oh, I only had a mild attack,’ comes the reply, and then ‘But it was good enough for me.’ They all start to tell you how weak they feel; no appetite for work. The only appetite they have is to wander aimlessly about or sit down in some snug corner with a big coat on and in the warm sunshine… There is one universal aftermath and that is weakness…
There is a warmth about human kindness which the ‘flu has caused hundreds of people in this district to feel and appreciate as they have never done in their lives before. 
‘Have you had it yet?’ 
No—then you possibly have yet to come into the pleasant glow of this warmth and comradeship which is the child of adversity. 

Lessons to learn?

It became  impossible for the Commonwealth to continue any pretence at controlling traffic when State Governments were not only acting independently, but were every day imposing new restrictions without reference to, or consultation with, the Commonwealth Government.
Relations between New South Wales and Victoria became very strained…
The border blockades soon proved to be farcical…and such ludicrous occasions were recorded as that of a dairy farmer being prohibited from crossing the road, which formed the border at that point, to milk his cows on the other side.

Fresh air or masks while exercising?

The Mullumbimby Star reported on 6 February 1919:
There is one thing in the country dweller’s favour with the epidemic, and that is that fresh air and sunshine are death on the germ. A Melbourne doctor has spoken out on this. He says to wear a mask when in close contact with likely cases, but ‘In the name of common sense, breathe in the air pure and unadulterated.’ There is no other kind of air but the pure in Mullumbimby, so we should be moderately safe. At the same time all precautions should be taken. While the medical men are fighting the common foe, influenza, the politicians are also having a fight—on State Rights! A little trade is being deflected and the insects are buzzing around and threatening reprisals.


This new third book of the trilogy looks at the parallel learning 101 years later. Can we find heart there? The Art Deco Mansion in St Lucia pays tribute to a man who inspired me to ‘Go forward!’ 

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