Graphic depicting two men wearing medical masks.

Episode 3: Holding the Line

The influenza pandemic spreads and a lockdown is immediately imposed. As Sydney shuts down and masks up, will the restrictions be enough to keep the virus in check?

Featuring public health expert Professor Peter Curson and medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Anxiety: ashot danielyan, Schubert F.6 Moments Musicaux D 780 Op.94-No.3 in F Minor Allegro Moderato: On Classical, Au fil de la nuit: Eracilon, Sad Piano: DDmyzik, The End in your Eyes: Aufklarung, Satie: Christian DALMONT, Promencelle: Eracilon, Entre les cordes: Eracilon, Live: Ludovico Gonzales, Anxiety: Hafizzhais, Anxiety: Shymonmusic. (All tracks amended)

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NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Newcastle Sun, Tuesday, 28th January, 1919. An enemy who has worked havoc all over the world and is still working havoc in many countries is actually in Sydney. His name is influenza.”

ELISE EDMONDS: For over six months, Australia had watched as the deadliest pandemic since the Black Death took millions of lives across the world.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The disease fights its way from person to person. It travels as fast as a human being can travel.”

ELISE: The country’s island isolation and long-practised quarantine measures had bought the Government valuable preparation time.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “There is no sure cure but there are precautions which will very greatly restrict the spread of the plague: maintain isolation as far as possible, wear a mask when within a sphere of infection and be inoculated.”

ELISE: Yet in just eight months, an estimated 15,000 Australians would die. This is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems. I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of New South Wales. In this episode, the Government rolls out drastic plans to contain the spread but the death rate climbs. So what went wrong? Or was 15,000 lives an inevitable toll at a time of great social and political upheaval, at a time of limited medical understanding, during what some say was the worst pandemic the world had ever seen?


SABRINA: This will be my first time on public transport in a while.

ELISE: Oh, yeah, right.

ELISE: It’s mid-May 2020, and the number of COVID-19 infections in Australia has well and truly dropped. At its peak, on March 24th, there were 242 new cases. Today it’s 18, with just 8 of these in NSW.

SABRINA: Nobody’s wearing masks.

ELISE: I considered it but then I forgot.

SABRINA: Yeah, I think we all feel like we’ve dodged a bullet.

ELISE: Yeah.

ELISE: But with the good news comes the bad. New unemployment figures have just been released.

SABRINA: Do you find that it’s difficult to remember how busy this would’ve been?


ELISE: In the nine weeks since the coronavirus shutdown began, 600,000 Australians have lost their jobs and 1.6 million are signed up to the Government’s JobKeeper payment, designed to keep workers connected to their employers.

SABRINA: I just wasn’t sure if you turned right but we’ve got to be on this side of the railway tracks.

ELISE: With news that some restrictions will start lifting by the end of the week, Sabrina and I are paying a visit to one community’s response to the fallout of COVID-19.

SABRINA: Oh, maybe this is it up here. There’s a cat sitting on top of it!

ELISE: Opposite the railway tracks, out the side of someone’s house, a wooden wardrobe has been left on the street.

SABRINA: So what does it say?

ELISE: “Take what you need, leave what you can. The Newtown Blessing Box. “

SABRINA: “Be kind to the Newtown Blessing Box, there’s enough for everyone.” And it’s pretty well stocked.

ELISE: Yeah, it’s really well stocked. There’s lots of tinned goods. There’s some pasta and instant dinners, sanitary items and teabags.

SABRINA: That’s a good idea. Soap.

ELISE: Oh, look, there’s even dog food. And then on the inside of the doors are just all these amazing yellow Post-it notes with little notes on them. “Love your work.” “Don’t make me cry.”

SABRINA: “Fantastic initiative. Good luck to everyone doing it tough. We’re thinking of you.”

ELISE: “Thanks for boosting faith in community and humanity. Local student, unemployed.”

SABRINA: “Keep your head high and your heart open.” “I haven’t eaten in days. Thank you.” Wow.

ELISE: Looks like everyone’s just treating it really well and respectfully. “You can always count on the kindness of strangers.”

SABRINA: “Thank you. Broke but not broken.”

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The history of Australia is simply littered with examples of infectious disease.

ELISE: This is Peter Curson, Emeritus Professor of Population and Health at Macquarie University. His particular interest is in how people behave when confronted with major outbreaks of infectious disease.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: One of the things about epidemics and pandemics is that we tend to forget what happened in the past and we don’t learn from it. Since the early years of the 19th century, at least 20 pandemics have affected Australia and possibly 35, 36 fairly significant epidemics. I mean, who remembers encephalitis lethargica? Polio was around in Australia from 1903 to 1956. In 1925, ’26, there were 560,000 cases of dengue on the  eastern seaboard of Australia. And then, of course, we had the plague epidemic in 1900, which lingered on till the 1920s.

ELISE: In late January 1919, after weeks of hesitation, Victoria finally admitted to having an outbreak of Spanish flu but only after NSW had already notified the Commonwealth of its first case and realised it had come from Victoria. Very quickly, the agreement made the previous November, that infected states would immediately notify the Commonwealth and hand over border control, broke down.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: NSW reacted with absolute terror and horror and closed the border. Queensland and NSW fought over the border restriction. The Queensland Government refused to allow ships full of returning soldiers to land. The Government took them to the High Court. They’d cut off the intercontinental train from Adelaide to Perth. Western Australia threatened to leave the Commonwealth. Tasmania has a shipping ban. And so it went. And the whole Commonwealth then collapsed and every state went their own way.

ELISE: With the Federal Government out of the picture, the spotlight moved firmly onto the states. In NSW, that meant Minister for Health J.D. Fitzgerald. The papers of John Daniel Fitzgerald are held in the State Library’s collection, a glimpse of the man who now shouldered the responsibility for Australia’s most populous state. Among files filled with correspondence, legal and political papers, I was surprised to find a folder full of creative writing: novels, film scripts, even a murder mystery. His book, Children Of The Sunlight, Stories Of Australian Circus Life was no doubt inspired by his brothers Tom and Dan. Together, they’d founded the hugely successful Fitzgerald Brothers’ Circus, which toured Australia and New Zealand for over a decade before the brothers’ untimely death in 1906. They passed within three months of each other. Both succumbed to infectious disease. Fitzgerald had started out in the newspaper trade and quickly became a figure in the Labor movement, socialist, republican, feminist, federationist, reformer and radical. He was a vocal supporter of women’s suffrage and was at the helm of the maritime strike of 1890. The Spanish flu was by no means his first epidemic. As a child he lived through outbreaks of measles, scarlet fever and smallpox. By the time bubonic plague arrived in Sydney in 1900, he was an alderman of the Sydney Municipal Council which oversaw a campaign of eradication. Fitzgerald then made his way into state government and was vice-president of the Executive Council when smallpox reappeared in Sydney in 1914. For the four years the disease lingered it caused them significant upheaval. Homes were demolished, businesses failed, people were forced from their homes into the quarantine station and vaccination depots were rushed. In fact, it was during this outbreak in 1916 that Fitzgerald accepted the position of Minister for Health. Now, looking down the barrel of a pandemic, it was his responsibility to save as many lives as he could. As a fierce advocate for the worker, that he was now required to force people into unemployment must have been a bitter pill to swallow but he needed to stop the spread and the State Governor issued the proclamation.

STATE GOVERNOR: I, Sir Walter E. Davidson, with the advice of the Executive Council, do hereby order all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and places of indoor resort for public entertainment in the metropolitan police district forthwith to close and to be kept closed until a further order by me.

ELISE: Fitzgerald urged vaccination and the wearing of masks as immediate measures of defence.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: Risk to the medical profession and governments is something that can be measured. You simply take the number of people who are exposed to an infection and you compare that to the number of people who avoid catching the infection. But for you and I, risk is a social, emotional thing, (INDECIPHERABLE) by the people around us, by what we hear in the media, what we believe, what we see from our neighbours, and I don’t think governments really understand that fully. Most of the pandemics and epidemics in Australia happened before television and people couldn’t actually see someone talking to them and they were dependent on the printed media or comments from neighbours or comments from friends and in many ways the human reaction far outplayed the number of cases, in some ways, and created extraordinary scenes in Australian history. And you might say that the governments in some ways believed that a certain element of fear is a useful mechanism getting people to actually do things and remove them from the possibility of infection.

ELISE: When the outbreak was declared, there were two places that people headed, the vaccination depots and the train stations.


Many families made a dash for the safety of the country, vowing not to return until the danger had passed. Towns like Bathurst set up quarantine areas in their showgrounds, their populations fearful that these city migrants would bring the disease with them. As country NSW began calling for Sydney to be cut off from the rest of the state, Fitzgerald began fielding criticism from local councils and affected industries on the issue of lost wages. Unions representing musicians, theatre and picture show workers were the first to approach. It’s important not to understate the role that the public gathering and venues like picture shows and churches played in early 20th century life. No television, no radio, telephones an expensive rarity. Gathering in person was the cornerstone of a functioning and informed community, especially in a city like Sydney where many of the inner city dwellings were cramped and overcrowded.


The days these venues went dark, the Sydney Morning Herald described the city streets as strangely gloomy. Questions from the now unemployed proprietors flowed thick and fast. “If London and New York didn’t close theatres during their outbreaks, why should we?” “Why did picture shows have to close while pubs were still open?” “We can pay our orchestra members to the end of the week but what then?” Fitzgerald would not be swayed and for the most part, at least to begin with, it seems that Sydneysiders attempted to get on with their lives. The big end-of-season sales continued and plenty of people were still going to work. Though travel had been discouraged, trams and trains were as crowded as usual. Tram workers, fearful for their own health, suggested tickets be refused to unmasked passengers. And while large gatherings had been stopped, officers, shops, factories, restaurants and tearooms were to stay open, so a huge amount of faith was to be put in masks as a means to stop the spread. It took less than a week for them to be made compulsory in the metropolitan district and in all trains and trams throughout NSW.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, February 3, 1919. Your neighbour will not, as from today, be able to ridicule you for having worn a mask because he or she is compelled to wear one and the probability is that it will be even uglier than your own. The Director-General of Public Health states that any method of covering the nose and mouth so that the wearer will breathe through at least four layers of gauze or butter muslin closely fitting the face round the edges is considered sufficient.”

ELISE: When masks were made compulsory in America, policemen had escorted non-compliers to the nearest shop, forcing them to buy one, and similar action was threatened here. Sydney responded if you hadn’t bought a mask you made one and improvisation was the order of the day.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “There were masks of almost every conceivable size and shape on view. There was the mask that looked like a pincushion, there were masks that suggested the diminutive birdcage, masks flat, convex, round and square. It might’ve been observed more people wore those masks in their pockets than in the position advised by medical advisers of the Minister for Health.”

ELISE: The day the masking regulations came into place, the Tweed Daily reported that Minister Fitzgerald motored around the city and was amazed at the public’s total disregard for the new rules. “Some people,” he said, “seem to think that half a cigarette is sufficient excuse to uncover the mouth and nose. No excuse of that sort will be accepted after today.” Just three days later, over 1,000 people had been arrested and fined with many of their names and charges printed in the paper. James Clarke, 28, barman, said he understood that persons were not required to wear masks in unfrequented streets.

JUDGE: Fine… (BANGS GAVEL).. 20 shillings!

ELISE: Eileen Leigh, 19, said that she had her mask under her chin as she was suffering from blocked sinuses.

JUDGE: Fine… (BANGS GAVEL).. 20 shillings or seven days imprisonment!

ELISE: John Campbell, wharf labourer, said he was a returned soldier and had to smoke as he was suffering from asthma so couldn’t keep his mask on.

JUDGE: Fine… (BANGS GAVEL).. 30 shillings or seven days imprisonment!

ELISE: Plus 21 days for kicking the arresting officer. Other returned soldiers told of being gassed on the battlefield and that masks hampered their breathing. In the case of Quay Sun, a 52-year-old Chinese gardener, when arrested he protested that the matter of life and death rested with God and that a person will die when his time comes and not before. The magistrate fined him £2 with an interpreter’s fee of  £1/1 or 14 days’ hard labour.

The library’s collection includes some well-referenced photographs of mask wearers from this time. People from around NSW pose for the camera like it’s any other day except for the gauze slung across their faces. But searching deeper into the catalogue, Sabrina and I have come across a reference to the Spanish flu in a family album we’ve not seen before. Like a large portion of the collection, it hasn’t been digitised so we need to head back into the library to see it.

ELISE: I think we want box six, which is this one here.

SABRINA: There are these tiny little square prints, maybe, what do you reckon, 4cm x 4 cm?

ELISE: Yeah. Oh, look, look, look. Yeah. So that looks like Martin Place.

SABRINA: It does. Everyone is wearing a mask.

ELISE: Oh, isn’t that great, yeah, so gentlemen in their three-piece suits.

SABRINA: And look at this woman wearing her veil.

ELISE: They were making their own veils, right?

SABRINA: That’s right.

SABRINA AND ELISE: (TOGETHER) It became this kind of fashion thing.

SABRINA: And there’s actually a number of them here, these women, they look more like beekeepers.

ELISE: The day after compulsory masking came into effect, the Government introduced another regulation, one that would prove what public panic could really look like.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “To some, the newspaper announcement came with the suddenness of a bomb dropped from a hostile aeroplane.”


ELISE: All hotels, their bars and bottle shops would close in the next 12 hours.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Large numbers flocked into the bottle departments of the principal hotels and throughout practically the whole of the day were packed by hot and perspiring crowds carrying bags and baskets and struggling to reach the counters in order to be served.”

ELISE: The other measure that had begun rolling out were inhalation chambers, a mechanism you’d stick your head into while a zinc solution was sprayed, the idea being that zinc would kill any germs in your nasal passages and prevent infection in the short-term. The department store Grace Bros. was one of the many businesses that installed them as a way of encouraging staff to come to work and customers to continue their patronage.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The railway commissioners have fitted up a number of tram cars and railway carriages as inhalation chambers and in case of necessity these will be moved about for use in localities at which it seems desirable the spray should be in general use.”

ELISE: While businesses did their best to retain customers, by the 7th February the number unemployed as a direct result of the pandemic was estimated at 20,000. 12 days after the first case was announced, as the death toll reached five, the Government allocated £10,000 in grants to cover the cost of food and rent for anyone in distress. With schools closed, 750 teachers were called on to oversee the distribution of funds.

DR PETER HOBBINS: People were losing their livelihoods.

ELISE: Medical historian Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: How do you care for your five children who now aren’t going to school? Who’s going to look after them? Is the breadwinner a soldier who’s still overseas, in which case Mum has to stay home and look after the kids? Or if Mum gets sick then is the father having to stay home from work? So there was a pretty rolling impact straight away and in NSW the Government acted much more dramatically and much more severely than any other state government around Australia. And of course you can imagine the pushback against that as well. Now, not all of the state went into lockdown straight away. Basically those sorts of measures were rolled out over time. Any community across NSW that might’ve been infected by the flu, once cases were spotted then those sorts of measures were brought in. Almost nowhere escaped despite these sorts of regulation.

ELISE: As public health measures were rolled out throughout February, the death rate remained low. By the end of the month, influenza had arrived in just nine regional towns and killed 17 people. Fitzgerald’s medical experts looked at the numbers and thought they were done. On March 1st, just five weeks after the infection arrived in NSW, it was announced that all restrictions would be abolished in the coming week. This judgement would prove wildly premature and deadly. By the end of March, the death toll had jumped to 95. Noises started to be made. What, if anything, was the Government going to do and how could they be sure not to overreact?

DR PETER HOBBINS: You can’t police the city of Sydney or the city of Newcastle or the city of Bathurst. People are still going to try to circumvent those measures and we saw this on the borders as well. There were people at Albury-Wodonga who were theoretically being quarantined for four or seven days to make sure they were safe to cross the border but some people didn’t want to comply with that, you know, they were swimming the Murray River or they were clambering across non-pedestrian bridges like pipelines and so on to get home. People weren’t always complying with these what we now call lockdown measures. Many people seemed to be doing the right thing or at least wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing by wearing these masks or by keeping out of areas of assembly but we still needed essential services as well, people still had to go to work, there were still soldiers coming home, we still needed supplies of food to come into the community.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 26 March, 1919. Epidemic or no epidemic, we must work to live. Nor can we live like hermits apart from each other when we are not working. Social life must be continued, nor should obstacles be placed in the way of the ordinary amusements of the people. If such were done, it would increase the number of those who are victims to morbid fears and the likelihood of infection would be heightened.”

ELISE: The Premier, William Holman, stepped in with his assurances.

PREMIER WILLIAM HOLMAN: It is not anticipated there will be the slightest interference with business enterprise. I have been in close consultation with the Minister for Health and at the present time I do not anticipate anything of the kind.

ELSIE: But the death rate kept climbing and within two weeks of this statement, the Government was forced to renege. Places of amusement were again shut down and a number of other regulations reintroduced, albeit in watered down form.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Sometimes it was piecemeal. They would say, “OK, we’ve closed all the pubs but what we’ll do instead is say pubs can open but drinkers can only come in for five minutes.” Or “Churches have to stay closed but church services can be held as long as they’re conducted out of doors with people at arm’s length from each other and the priest basically yelling at the congregation to get the message across.”

ELISE: Eventually, nearly all restrictions introduced at the end of January were reinstated and in an additional blow, the Easter Show, a huge event for the agricultural and economic heart of the nation, was cancelled. But it was too late. April saw a sharp rise in deaths across the state. Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: People went almost berserk in Sydney. They avoided contact with people, they avoided trams and ferries, they declined to go to any churches, they wouldn’t go to any sports events, shops didn’t want people to come in. Neighbours avoided neighbours, there were fights, people barricaded themselves away. It was a period of substantial chaos, really. The other issue was that the medical profession wasn’t prepared and in some ways ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak like flu. The medical staff were, in 1919, totally undernourished. Many of them had served in Europe and hadn’t come back yet and the efforts of getting enough staff and medical staff to look after people was almost impossible in some ways.

ELISE: With infection rates rocketing into the thousands, the Government knew that isolating the sick was critical. They also knew there weren’t enough doctors, nurses or hospital beds to go around. Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Basically, hospitals in that time, they were very small facilities that had often been funded by the community coming together and actually finding the money to build a little local hospital and to have people on staff there, but really, a lot of people, if they became sick in 1919, would still call for the doctor and have to pay a fee for the GP to come and visit them in their home. And of course not everybody could do that as well, so in 1919 in the crisis there were other groups like the Red Cross which had been set up during the First World War in Australia. They stepped up and provided emergency depots and emergency nursing care in people’s homes or in small facilities like the schools that were sitting there empty, which were rapidly turned into emergency hospitals and managed very much at the local community level, not by the state and certainly not by the Commonwealth Government.

ELISE: In 2016, the NSW division of the Red Cross donated its enormous archives to the library. It’s clear looking at their records from 1919 that NSW and certainly Sydney would’ve been in trouble without them. Coming off the back of a large and well-organised war effort, they were well-placed to coordinate an emergency response which their secretary, Eleanor MacKinnon, headed up with gusto.

ELEANOR MACKINNON: This is a citizens’ battle to save their own lives and there must be wholehearted unity to meet the greatest foe that any country has ever met.

ELISE: Lucky for the Government, these women not only had a strong sense of duty but the time to devote to unpaid labour. Women may have achieved the vote but their participation in the workforce was still frowned upon. Even Fitzgerald, who’d advocated for women’s rights, did not necessarily agree with their participation outside the domestic or charitable spheres. “I think it is, to a certain extent, an evil,” he said, “and shows that the changed conditions of modern society, the keenness of industrial competition, has forced these women into the labour market against their will. They may not think this but it is so.” Whatever the Government’s position on women in the labour force, during the influenza outbreak they were heavily reliant on their voluntary efforts to run the influenza relief depots. The Government ordered people who fell ill to go to bed and stay there. To make sure they could, a card printed with large lettering reading ‘S.O.S.’ was distributed to every household. It’s many weeks into our research that we discover one of these cards while down in the library stacks, searching through a folder catalogued as ‘Miscellaneous Health’.

SABRINA: Oh! Look how big it is!

ELISE: Awesome! Right at the bottom of the miscellaneous folder so “S.O.S. If you want any attention from the doctor, nurse or helper, put this card on the window bar showing the S.O.S. If you want food only, put the back of the card to the window.” There’s nothing on the back. “A depot has been established in this district for the purpose of rendering any assistance required.”

SABRINA: But we’ve talking about this for like three months now and we’ve had one here the whole time!

ELISE: Well, that’s the story of the library. See, you know, we’ve got gold hidden away. You just have to find it.

ELISE: Twice a day, the streets were patrolled to identify homes where assistance was needed. In Sydney, the Health Board, supported by the Red Cross, coordinated hundreds of nurses, doctors, voluntary aides and other volunteers going door to door distributing food, clothing, blankets, medicine and care to the sick. Towns like Lithgow mirrored the Sydney system by dividing their districts into sections. Doctors abandoned their practices and drove street by street visiting every house where the card was displayed. Throughout the worst months of the epidemic the Red Cross cared for almost 120,000 patients. 140 workers came down with the illness themselves, five of whom died.

DR PETER HOBBINS: If you dealt day to day with cases of pneumonic influenza your chance of developing the disease yourself were about 50%. Now that was just wearing masks and gowns and washing your hands and doing all the right things. The disease was that infectious and the precautions that they had in 1919 were that ineffective that you were highly likely to pick up the disease yourself, so given that you were seeing people in front of you who were struggling for breath and sometimes dying of this disease it was extraordinarily brave. I’m astounded at the bravery of those people in Australia who put themselves in the frontline of dealing with pneumonic influenza.

ELISE: The Red Cross not only staffed and ran the emergency depots, they also set up temporary hostels for workers who didn’t want to risk infecting their own families and a hospital for those who fell ill. They coordinated fourth- and fifth-year medical students called upon to supplement the shortage of qualified medical staff. When it became clear their doctors and nurses couldn’t get around fast enough on foot they begged motor cars from willing donors. They made masks. They distributed protective overalls and goggles to workers and government literature on how best to treat the disease to households.

ELISE: This is very delicate paper.  Oh, look at this. “Influenza 1919.”

SABRINA: Jackpot.

ELISE: So this is a leaflet issued by the Department of Public Health. “Advice to those who fall sick and cannot secure the services of a doctor.” So that’s pretty grim, isn’t it?

SABRINA: Wow. So for bleeding from the nose you’ve got a cold compress, for sudden collapse you’ve got a hot compress.

ELISE: “Take your brandy at intervals until the patient revives.”

SABRINA: “Diet should be of a light nature.”

ELISE: “The bowels should be opened daily by means of epsom salts, citrate of magnesia or some other such purgative. The sick person, when sneezing, coughing or expectorating, should do so into clean rags which should be burnt at once.”



SABRINA: ”Any person handling such rags should immediately wash the hands after such attention.”

ELISE: Yeah, I mean, they know what they’re doing in that sense, don’t they, in terms of contagion and so that is dated Sydney, April 1919, so that really is in that peak period.

ELISE: That April, for the first time since the measles epidemic of 1875, NSW saw deaths outnumber births, 1,395 lives taken by pneumonic influenza in just four weeks. The figure would’ve been higher but by how much we can’t know. The lives and deaths of Aboriginal people were not properly counted until the national census of 1971. But there’s no doubt as the disease crept out across the state along roads and railway lines that many Aboriginal communities were heavily impacted. Reports told of people fleeing into the bush. Back in Sydney, many people had stopped wearing their masks and shop assistants had had enough. They lobbied to have all shops with the exception of food and chemists closed, and Fitzgerald conceded. With the virus continuing its spread, doubts were now growing about the vaccine, the inhalation chambers and masks. Did any of it actually work? Piecing together the timeline of 1919 is a confusing business. Regulations seemed to chop and change on an almost weekly basis but in the end it was the virus itself that shut things down. Services like the post office, the police and the rail and tramways reported hundreds, in some cases thousands, of absences due to influenza. While shiploads of soldiers were still making their way home, the cost of war in terms of lives and pounds were being calculated and the numbers were dumbfounding. The Australian Government had promised jobs for repatriated soldiers. 150,000 returned injured and needed care, many more with venereal diseases, tuberculosis, alcoholism or depression. The Commonwealth was now struggling to fulfil their part of the bargain in the middle of a pandemic and the highest level of industrial action the country had ever seen. Then, in the middle of May, restrictions were lifted for a second and final time. In that first week of March, when they’d first been lifted, just five deaths were recorded. This time there were 123. The death rate had only just started to fall and it’s difficult to understand why a simple assessment of the numbers wasn’t enough evidence for the Government to hold its ground. This decision seems to have been a combination of pressure from business, public opinion, optimistic denialism or a throwing up of hands. They’d come to understand that the virus was far less virulent than it had been overseas which may have led to a belief that the worst was behind them. Whatever they told themselves, as the country prepared to celebrate Peace Day, they were marching up the curve of a much deadlier second wave.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Viruses will naturally evolve to not necessarily become more dangerous. Often it’s to become less dangerous and just more transmissible.

ELISE: That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks to Peter Curson and Peter Hobbins for sharing their time and knowledge with us. And thanks to you for listening. If you’re in Sydney between the 5th September 2020 and the 24th January 2021 be sure to swing by the State Library to see Pandemic, a display which includes a number of the items we’ve talked about in this podcast.


ELISE: There’s still lots of traffic on the road. It just amazes me that there’s still a lot of traffic.

SABRINA: Yeah, the buses are pretty empty.

ELISE: Did you see – I don’t know if it was the news - about a bus, a normal bus size with social distancing - ten people. That’s crazy. When, you know, the buses are usually standing room only and they are jammed. I don’t know how it’s going to work.

SABRINA: Unless they do eradicate. ‘Cause what’s going to change between now and July, really?

ELISE: No, exactly