The 1918 influenza pandemic

Page 5 – Response to the influenza pandemic

There were consistencies in New Zealand's response to the influenza pandemic. Many of these arose out of a circular telegram the Health Minister, George Russell, issued to all borough councils and town boards. This ‘laid out a practical and comprehensive scheme of relief organisation in clear and concise language, and gave full initiative to the local authorities'. Many of the features of the scheme – such as the establishment of a central committee to coordinate relief and the division of areas into blocks or districts, each with its own ‘depot or bureau', were Auckland initiatives. Some towns and cities, such as Dunedin, had already taken steps to coordinate relief efforts, but Russell's circular undoubtedly prompted others to take action.

One action taken in many town and cities was to set up inhalation sprayers to disperse a solution of zinc sulphate to the public. Though ‘medically useless', this was the only approved preventative for influenza known to New Zealand's public health department. Most sprayers were set up in public buildings. They were made even more accessible in Christchurch after someone observed that the compressed-air braking units on trams ‘could be adapted to operate a sprayer by reconnecting a few hoses'. Eventually 14 trams were converted and ‘stationed on loops at the end of all major routes, handily placed to serve the outlying districts'. Some local authorities also disinfected streets and public buildings during the pandemic.

Another response in many towns and cities was to close or restrict opening hours for public facilities and businesses, and cancel or postpone public events and gatherings. In many cases these actions were initiated by those in charge of relief efforts. For example, as soon as influenza was declared an infectious disease – giving local authorities greater ability ‘to check or prevent the spread of disease' – Auckland's district health officer, Dr Joseph Frengley, ordered the closure of ‘all public halls, places of entertainment, billiard rooms and shooting galleries for at least a week'. In some cases individual businesses chose to close because of depleted staff numbers, or to free employees to nurse those in their households or to volunteer to assist relief efforts.

Doctors, nurses, chemists, and voluntary organisations such as the Red Cross, St John Ambulance and district nursing associations all played crucial roles during the pandemic. But they were spread very thinly across the country, particularly in smaller towns, which meant relief efforts relied heavily on volunteers. Some women, free of employment when schools or shops closed, became lay nurses. Both men and women served on block committees, answering phones or checking on those reported to be ill. Still more people helped their families, friends and neighbours as best they could, particularly where there were young children that needed care. People with any sort of vehicle found themselves in particular demand: to take food or medicine to stricken families, to transport the sick or to take away the dead.

There were other consistencies throughout the country, as the same rumours circulated widely. Some claimed that bodies were being cremated or buried in mass graves. None of these rumours turned out to be true. Some graves were left unmarked, but only in situations where the body could not be identified.

One alarming detail relating to victims' bodies that turned out to be true was that some of them turned black. But it was pneumonia, rather than the virus itself, that caused this. Pneumonia can lead to a condition known cyanosis, where ‘the amount of oxygen exchanged into the bloodstream is drastically reduced, and the skin loses its normal health pink hue, turning a dusky purple'. Historian Geoffrey Rice has described pneumonia as ‘the real killer in 1918'.

However deadly and disruptive the influenza epidemic was, it was also over quickly. By late November the epidemic had peaked or decreased in most parts of the country, and by early December it was effectively over.

How to cite this page

'Response to the influenza pandemic', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/1918-influenza-pandemic/response, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016