April 18th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Justice at last: Cardinal Pell set free

EDITORIAL Australia needs an economic reset after covid19 crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED The very young can still be 'taken care of' during the covid19 outbreak

RURAL AFFAIRS A national disgrace: Our great land sale

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Use detention centres to help deal with covid19

GENDER POLITICS Do we really need to ask, what is a woman?

REFLECTION A chance for a change of heart: Covid19 as Memento mori

FAMILY Who let the kids out? The stay-at-home parent and covid19

ECONOMICS The oil cartel: The lesson for other industries from OEC

HEALTH Lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic

CULTURE AND SOCIETY There is a war: The battle in and for hearts

ASIAN AFFAIRS What makes China different is not the Chinese but the CCP

HUMOUR Locked down in Covi Town

MUSIC Great, er, swan songs

CINEMA+TV Staying in; staying sane

BOOK REVIEW Not our Robin Hood

BOOK REVIEW At home among others




CARDINAL GEORGE PELL FREE: The commentary file

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Lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, April 18, 2020

The draconian methods employed to curb the spread of the covid19 virus – including the government-ordered shutdown of aviation and tourism, restrictions on movement of people interstate, together with the forced closure of restaurants, cafés and bars, and legally enforced bans on gatherings of more than two people across the country – have led some people to fear that these extreme measures are the first steps in the establishment of a police state.

While such concerns should always be taken seriously, the consequences of delayed action to curb the outbreak – as happened in countries such as the United States, Italy, Spain and Britain – is that emergency health services and intensive-care wards are overwhelmed and, as a result, many people needlessly die.

The necessity to introduce quarantine measures to control the spread of infectious diseases has been known since the Middle Ages. In fact, the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian word “quaranta”, meaning forty, because the first quarantine laws were introduced in Venice to prevent the spread of diseases like the Black Death, for which there was no known cure.

In the 20th century, with the spread of anti-bacterial treatments such as penicillin, and use of vaccines to immunise against common viruses, the spread of infectious diseases was contained, and quarantine laws were regarded as relics of a past era.

However, the emergence of new viruses like covid19, for which we have no natural immunity, means that measures to restrict the spread of the disease have to be put in place.


The last major viral pandemic was the Spanish flu outbreak at the end of World War I, when it is estimated that 50 million people died around the world, including many fit and active young soldiers who had survived World War I.

A virus spreads rapidly when it is highly infectious. However, people who survive a virus develop a natural immunity to that particular strain, based on the development of antibodies that circulate in the blood. Over time, immunity grows within a community, and the spread of the virus slows down, and eventually stops. To continue to spread, a virus needs to find more people who lack immunity, and this occurs through mutation of the virus, as is being seen in covid19.

When a new virus or strain emerges to which people have no immunity, invariably people are urged or required to change their behaviour, to limit the spread of the disease.

When the Spanish flu hit the United States, which had a well-developed public-health system, the measures taken in different cities in 1918 were recorded. These records show which methods were effective in controlling the spread of the virus.

The accompanying chart, taken from National Geographic, shows the way in which government policy in different cities of the U.S. affected the outcome. In all four cities shown, governments adopted strict measures to stop the spread of the disease, including closing all schools, churches and public gatherings, quarantining people with infections in their homes or in special wards in hospitals, and banning spitting in public.

The reason why Philadelphia had the highest death rate in the country is that 10 days after the first case of Spanish flu was reported in the city in September 1918, it hosted a parade attended by 200,000 people.

The conclusion that researchers have reached is that mass gatherings provide the ideal environment for the spread of the virus, and that social distancing for two or three months, coupled with enhanced levels of personal hygiene, is the best method of limiting the spread of the disease.

Every state in the United States attempted to limit the spread of Spanish flu, yet it ended up taking an estimated 500,000 lives.

The recent catastrophic spread of covid19 in developed countries such as Spain, Italy, Britain and the U.S. show that new viruses are capable of causing the collapse of health systems, but that many lives can be saved if strict social distancing guidelines are in place, and are enforced.

While current figures for China are completely untrustworthy, we know from countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan that the spread of the disease can be effectively controlled through strict public health measures such as those that have been enacted by governments in Australia.

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm