The 1918 influenza pandemic

Page 4 – Uneven rates of death

No matter how the second wave developed in New Zealand, it was many times more deadly than any previous influenza outbreak. No other event has killed so many New Zealanders in so short a space of time. While the First World War claimed the lives of more than 18,000 New Zealand soldiers over four years, the second wave of the 1918 influenza epidemic killed about 9000 people in less than two months.

Death did not occur evenly throughout the country. Some communities were decimated; others escaped largely unscathed.

Māori suffered heavily: their overall rate of death was nearly 50 per thousand people, more than eight times that of Europeans. In one Māori community, Mangatāwhiri in Waikato, about 50 out of 200 people died. Whina Cooper recalled similar suffering at Panguru, Hokianga:

Everyone was sick, no one to help, they were dying one after the other. My father was very, very sick then. He was the first to die. I couldn't do anything for him. I remember we put him in a coffin, like a box. There were many others, you could see them on the roads, on the sledges, the ones that are able to drag them away, dragged them away to the cemetery. No time for tangis.

But there was an exception. Mortality amongst Māori on the East Coast of the North Island was, according to historian Geoffrey Rice, ‘much less than expected in comparison with other North Island districts’. This may have been because they had received partial immunity from the first wave, which was reportedly widespread in the district during August and September.

The overall rate of death for Europeans was 5.8 per thousand people. But in some communities it was well above the national average. 

The most striking of these was the isolated coalmining district of Nightcaps and Wairio in western Southland. Its rate of 45.9 deaths per thousand people rivalled that of many Māori communities.

Geoffrey Rice notes that ‘the only places where the mortality showed any uniformity were the military camps’, which were ‘by far the most dangerous places to be in 1918’. At the large Featherston and Trentham camps, the death rates were 22.6 and 23.5 per thousand people respectively.

Rice observes that explanations for the variations in mortality ‘must remain to some extent speculative’, but concludes that:

The underlying cause of extreme variations in deaths was almost certainly the quirky nature of the patterns of partial immunity left by the mild first wave, together with the unpredictable behaviour of a virulent and rapidly mutating virus.

See also: death rates in suburbs and counties of the North Island and South Island

How to cite this page

'Uneven rates of death', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-May-2020

Community contributions

3 comments have been posted about Uneven rates of death

What do you know?

Jamie M

Posted: 05 Dec 2018

Hi Marg - we can confirm she died in August 1920 after a long illness- see obituary here: Flu was still prevalent in the years after the epidemic but she wouldn’t be considered someone who died 'during the epidemic' even if she did die of flu in 1920. Kind regards Jamie Mackay

Marg Pearce

Posted: 19 Nov 2018

I am puzzled. I have always been told (by my father) that my grandmother Nina Jane Fairchild died in the epidemic, yet she died in July 1920, aged 46. Can anyone tell me if influenza deaths extended in to 1920??