South Australia and the Spanish flu 

25 August 2020

History repeats … but not always in a good way, sadly. The parallels between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu onslaught of 100 years ago are many, but mercifully, the former - to date - has resulted in far fewer deaths.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920 killed 540 South Australians - a figure some historians believe would translate relatively to about 15,000 people in today's population, according to the ABC.

The outbreak prompted SA to close its borders to Victoria, where the virus was thought to originate in Australia.

In Australia, around 15,000 people died from Spanish flu at a time when the country's population was five million.

Globally the Spanish flu infected an estimated 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population, eventually causing the deaths of between 50 million to 100 million people.

It was called the Spanish flu because Spain was one of the first countries where the epidemic was identified. This was due to Spain being a neutral country during World War I and its media was largely free of wartime censorship and able to report on the illness. Consequently, many people at the time wrongly believed the flu was specific to or originated in Spain (and the nickname stuck).

Many historians believe that the Spanish flu developed as a result of the cramped, damp and unhygienic conditions soldiers experienced in the trenches during the Great War. But in 2014, a new theory suggested it first emerged in China (another parallel with COVID-19), linked to the transportation of Chinese labourers.

As far as mortality rates go, only the Black Death of the mid-1300s is believed to have taken more lives.

The Black Death was the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history. Also known as the bubonic plague, it resulted in the deaths of up to 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

The plague travelled from person to person through the air, as well as through the bite of infected fleas and rats.

The Spanish flu pandemic began in 1918, during the closing stages of World War I, where it spread through Europe's Western Front in increasingly virulent waves, reports the ABC.

It was considered unusual because many of its victims were healthy, fit young men and women as opposed to seasonal influenza which typically had the worst impact for infants, the elderly, and those with poor immune systems.

The virus killed more people than the Great War itself and was spread to all corners of the globe by returning servicemen.

The first Australian case was recorded in Melbourne on January 9 or 10, 1919, but the early infections were so mild there was some conjecture over whether it was simply a seasonal virus from the previous winter.

The slow response allowed the virus to spread to New South Wales and South Australia, which annoyed leaders of the two states so much they closed borders and withdrew from an earlier agreement to allow the Commonwealth to take control of the situation.

According to a souvenir book entitled Normal, written by the [Jubilee Oval] Camp Publication Committee, South Australians on holiday in Melbourne at the time found they had been locked out of their own state.

After spending weeks in limbo, the local holiday makers offered to go to Kangaroo Island, Granite Island, or even Torrens Island where returning soldiers were being quarantined.

"There seemed to be no place where we could rest our many heads in our own state," an author wrote in the book.

After signing declarations that they had taken every precaution not to be exposed, several hundred travellers were transported on guarded trains back home to Adelaide, the ABC reported.

From there they were quarantined at the former Jubilee Oval adjacent the Torrens River in the CBD.

Some 100 military tents equipped with bedding, lighting, water, shower baths, a telephone, and a post office, were set up while full-time catering staff, guards, nurses, and doctors were deployed.

More accommodation was set up in the adjacent Machinery Hall and in total, about 640 people who had been visiting Victoria and elsewhere were quarantined at the site.

All up, 40 per cent of Australia's population was infected by the influenza but its subsequent death rate of 2.7 per cent per 1,000 members of the population was the lowest recorded of any country during the pandemic.

However, mortality rates among some Aboriginal communities were much higher, at about 50 per cent.

Sources: ABC and