What does COVID-19 have in common with the Spanish Flu and how did the pandemic affect Alice Anderson, her garage girls, and her family?

When armistice was declared on 11 November 1918 Alice was going about building her Kew Garage at 88 Cotham Road. The steady stream of soldiers returning from World War One arrived home with a weapon as innocent as a running nose and as deadly as a spray of bullets. It was labelled the ‘Spanish ‘Flu’ because neutral Spain was free to report the outbreak before other countries, though history tells us it originated in the United States. It was at Fort Riley Kansas in March 1918 where soldiers burned tons of manure just before a dust storm kicked up a stinking yellow haze. Two days later, the first soldiers reported feeling sick. Forty-eight soldiers consequently died at Fort Riley and the rest transported the deadly virus to Europe. (Imagine how President Trump, who insists on calling Covid-19 the ‘China Virus’, would say today if the Spanish ‘Flu, true to its origins, was renamed the ‘America Virus!’)

Not only did the Spanish ‘Flu appear more deadly than Covid-19, it attacked the young healthy adults more viciously than the very young and the elderly—a reversal of the usual mortality pattern. The initial symptoms, similar to Covid-19, were no different to the common cold but quickly developed into a pneumonia that filled the lungs with fluid, producing a blood-tinged froth, and could kill within hours. We are fortunate that a Covid-19 diagnosis is not necessarily so swift and fatal, and that a fair percentage of populations do recover—even though we have more recently realised there are those who do experience long-term chronic effects. Similar to what we are discovering with the current pandemic, the Spanish ‘Flu also tended to affect an area for up to twelve weeks, disappear then return several months later.

Inoculation poster

Alice’s brother-in-law, Alfred Derham, a medical doctor, was assigned to the Quarantine Station at Point Nepean early January 1919. This was where all soldiers and other personnel returning to Victoria were tested, inoculated and quarantined if they had symptoms. But, as with Covid-19, the virus was not so well understood at the time. Alfred even wrote to his wife (Alice’s sister, Frankie) that, ‘I am still doubtful whether this is really Pneumonic Influenza as I know it though it may be “Epidemic Pneumonia” which is quite a well-known thing…’ Consequently the inoculation jabs returned soldiers and the general population were subjected to, were unfortunately antibacterial and did nothing to prevent further spread. (In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the first experimental antiviral vaccines were developed.)

Alice and her garage girls were young and in the business of transporting people by car. This put them at great risk. Just as with Covid-19 today, the public were told to wear masks, regularly wash their hands and distance themselves from anyone who had flu-like symptoms. Towards the end of January 1919 Alice wrote to her Mother (who lived in the Yarra Valley with Alice’s younger siblings) that, ‘Spanish flu is rife. Don’t let the kids come near town or back to school unless it is all away. Smithy (garage girl) took a case yesterday. Nice old liars they were too. They said it was not flu and when she got to Melbourne, she looked at the slip they handed to her and it was the Flu. So she had the trouble of disinfecting and then we don’t feel safe. It starts with an ordinary cold…’

Alice and her staff were fortunate not to have contracted the ‘Flu. As for Alice’s family, it was only her baby nephew, (Frankie and Alfred’s son) Tommy, who fell sick but thankfully recovered.

Had there not been a world war that saw tens of thousands of soldiers shipped around the globe, the Spanish ‘Flu may have been more contained and not become a pandemic. In the first half of the twentieth century international travel was a less regular event, and beyond the reach of many. Up until a few months ago, getting on a plane and travelling to practically any corner of the world within hours was routine for many of us. As a result we now live in a world where emerging contagions between humans are almost impossible to contain. If and when an effective, safe vaccine does become available for Covid-19, even then the task of supplying and vaccinating the world’s seven billion plus population will take years rather than months. We may have to concede that, as with the Spanish ‘Flu, the world may have to wait for it to burn itself out and experience many more deaths as a result. If the Spanish ‘Flu is anything to go by, Covid-19 may be around for a couple more years yet. Let’s just hope the death toll is not so devastating: worldwide, the Spanish ‘Flu took 40 -70 million lives.

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