PHILIPPA STEVENS: It’s weird, perception versus the reality of the tape measure.
ELISE EDMONDS: Yep.
PHILIPPA: That is something that I have said. You’ve just got to get the tape measure out and start stalking it around.
ELISE: Stalking around with a tape measure is something that Philippa Stevens has been doing a lot over the last couple of weeks. As the State Library’s Manager of Information and Access, she’s in charge of the reading rooms which, after the longest closure since the last global pandemic, are reopening to the public today, 1st June 2020.
PHILIPPA: It’s a really exciting day and last week, as I was wrangling a whole pile of details, I was thinking, “I wonder what those librarians were thinking back in 1919?”
ELISE: Before coronavirus, thousands of people would walk through the library’s doors on any given day but as was the case in 1919, reopening during a pandemic means limited numbers, bookings and social distancing is essential.
PHILIPPA: You can’t just turn up and walk into the library. You need to pre-book because we have to have your contact details for contact tracing and that’s your computer or your seat for 3.5 hours and then it’s cleaned. So we close at 1.30 and then we reopen at 2.30 for the afternoon session.
ELISE: It’s like a scenario that you might get in like a job interview or like an advanced training for managers or something and it’s just to practise and to see how a team works but no, it’s an actual real life, it’s not just a scenario.
Oh, yeah, there’s quite a few people in here, aren’t there, working at computers?
PHILIPPA: Yep. People are working away quietly because I think they can’t do this at home.
PHILIPPA: And we’ve measured out all the seating positions. Staff have got the sneeze guards, there’s wipes and hand sanitiser absolutely everywhere. We’re marking on the floor sort of what one and a half metres looks like. It’s hard to keep it going at all times but everyone’s on the lookout for each other.
ELISE: I’m Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator at the State Library of NSW and this is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems. In this final episode, after the turmoil of a deadly war and an even deadlier pandemic, a world in economic crisis tries to recover and forget. So to what extent did the pandemic contribute to Australia’s woes as it rushed towards modernisation or was its impact along with its memory lost in the shadow of the war? As we live through the coronavirus pandemic, looking back at 1919 can feel like holding up a warped mirror to a strange parallel universe, one which at times seems to be looking right back at us.
NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, January 7, 1919. At the present time, when Sydney people are still feeling grateful to the quarantine officials for having confined the influenza scourge to the quarantine area, we may well ask ourselves whether the rapid development of the aeroplane in times of peace will not add to the difficulties of preventing the introduction of disease from other places.”
ELISE: However prescient this may now seem, the health problems of future generations weren’t going to stand in the way of progress. In 1919, it took seven weeks to sail from London to Sydney. The promise of the aeroplane was a trip that took half that time. As the first wave of pneumonic influenza was dying down the Government announced a great air race, offering a prize of £10,000 to the first Australian to fly from England to Australia within 720 consecutive hours. But with commercial air travel still many decades away the traveller of 1919 was still stuck with the steamship, and in late August, as pneumonic influenza was loosening its grip on NSW, this is how the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, made his way home after an absence of over a year. Hughes had arrived in London in June 1918 to attend a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet. While in England, the war had ended so Hughes stayed to attend the peace negotiations in Paris. This conference of 27 nations involved a complex series of meetings, largely focused on making Germany pay for its part in the war, reassigning its territories, moving its borders, taking over its resources and figuring out how much cash it should hand over as part of reparations.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: The war had basically hindered a decades-long global economic system and it’s very unclear in 1919 what is going to replace it.
ELISE: Frank Bongiorno is a professor at the Australian National University’s School of History.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: Hughes had got some great deals for some Australian exporters and producers during the war but, you know, there’s a real sense at the end of the war that Australia could plunge into an even worse economic situation that it’s already in, not only dreadful inflation and unemployment but also a massive debt to Britain, and so a lot of Hughes’ preoccupations are around getting Australia a good a deal as he possibly can and also punishing Germany, screwing as much money as he can out of a defeated Germany.
ELISE: This was an era when most Australians still saw themselves as British yet Hughes understood the country’s unique security, economic and political concerns and insisted in his irascible way that Australia be represented not by Britain but by him, the leader of an independent nation.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: He was a very assertive figure in terms of Australia’s interests, Hughes. He was actually quite successful, I suppose, in getting his way and so it was in some ways an unprecedented assertion, the idea that Australia wasn’t just a kind of an adjunct of Britain, that it had its own interests to pursue and would be willing to do it.
ELISE: The first and most significant of the agreements to come out of the Peace Conference was the Treaty of Versailles and on the 28th of June, 1919, Hughes signed it on behalf of Australia then sailed back home to a hero’s welcome.
ELISE: Met by cheering crowds, Hughes was carried through the streets by the ANZACs he’d championed throughout the four years of war.
“But for the men who fought,” he said, “Australia today would be in chains. Australia’s freedom, which was trembling in the balance, has come back to us in overwhelming measure and all those ideas of which a white Australia is not the least valuable are now still within our grasp. Nothing but our own folly, our own cowardice, our own weakness and our own apathy can lose them. Our destiny lies widespread before us. This war has, owing to the valour of our soldiers, enabled us to take our place amongst the family of nations. We must hold the country and develop it.”
ELISE: In none of the speeches given during his return tour does Hughes make mention of the pandemic or the cost it exacted on Australia in his absence. His focus is almost entirely on the war, the heroes who fought, the cowards who did not and how Australia would embrace its destiny as a global player on the road to economic recovery.
PRIME MINISTER HUGHES: Yesterday the Allied Force was shot and shelled. Today they must fight with trade. The competition will be fiercer than ever. The war has cost us £300 million and it is estimated that repatriation will cost another £100 million. We cannot carry this crushing burden unless we show the same spirit as that which led us to victory. Salvation lies in work.
ELISE: While visiting troops on the Western Front, Hughes had seen their sacrifice with his own eyes and it seems he was determined that this be seared into the nation’s memory as it had been into his own. Though he’d also witnessed the worst of the pandemic while in England, Hughes would’ve been aware of the comparatively light toll it had taken on his homeland and while Australians were suffering through the pandemic he was already looking to the future as he thrashed out his deals in Paris. With the economic black hole created by the war and the promises made to soldiers for a heavily supported repatriation it may be no wonder that Hughes omitted to speak about the influenza. The sacrifices of war and the economic repercussions seemed to overshadow all else. There wasn’t much room left for the Spanish flu. Medical historian Peter Hobbins.
DR PETER HOBBINS: Maybe after all the sacrifice, the heroism, the suffering, the grieving and the loss of the First World War people didn’t have a lot more capacity in Australia to also commemorate or remember yet another tragedy and get passed on in their family stories but it doesn’t seem to have been commemorated in any way like the First World War and you can see this playing out across the landscape so that almost every suburb and country town across Australia in the 1920s built a war memorial. It’s a major part of Australian popular culture that’s quite distinct from the rest of the world.
ELISE: Before the coronavirus pushed it into view, this pandemic did not figure in our collective memory. As an aftershock to the war it was in no way the main event, not as long, not as brutal, yet it still shut down society and took its own pound of flesh – 15,000 lives. It’s no small number, a toll difficult to imagine happening here today even while we watch as mass graves are dug in many countries around the world. Despite its early quarantine success, Australia knew it hadn’t rid itself of pneumonic influenza. There was no consistent public health measure they could really point to, no scientific breakthrough, but there was a clear understanding that a combination of geographical isolation and quarantine was what had saved it from the worst. And despite the compulsion both then and now to liken pandemics to war, it seems that when faced with both, it was the deaths of intentional sacrifice in the fight for freedom, deaths which could be built into heroic mythology, that won a place in our collective memory, not those caused by the unseeable, unknowable, unsolvable and uninvited pneumonic influenza. The grief left by both the pandemic and the war would linger for years but it was the economic impact of the war, not the pandemic, that would linger alongside it. Frank Bongiorno.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: We historians talk about, you know, the depression of the 1840s and the depression of the 1890s and the depression of the 1930s. We actually need to have been talking about the depression of the 1910s. The war was devastating to the economy. GDP declined over about six years by almost 10%, 9.5%. That’s a depression, you know, that’s an extraordinary drop in national production. People’s wealth dropped even more, so one of the reasons why it’s very difficult to work out what kind of impact the Spanish flu had is because of course it’s coming up from such a low base given the effect of the First World War on the economy that, you know, it was almost impossible to imagine it going any further down.
ELISE: The depression of the 2020s seems an inevitable addition to future historians’ lists. Recent estimates have shown that the coming financial year will see a fall in Australia’s economy which will surpass even that caused by the First World War. Not long after it became clear that pneumonic influenza would cause significant economic disruption, the NSW Government did pass an influenza relief bill, handing loans and cash payments to distressed businesses and families who applied. But it was a drop in the ocean compared to what the Federal Government is doing today and to the cost of the war back then. In fact, it was a rise in the minimum wage at the end of 1919 which made up the bulk of the State Government’s deficit, not the direct costs of the epidemic. The idea of government welfare was also only partly formed at this time. Generally, people did not look to the Government for financial support. Reports describe workers reluctant to accept the Government’s influenza relief as it “savours too much of charity, instead living off their own savings.” Simon Ville, Senior Professor of Economic and Business History with the University of Wollongong, agrees that the coincidence of these events make it difficult to pin down the exact impact of the pandemic.
PROFESSOR SIMON VILLE: I mean, we know that often after war there’s this thing called pent-up demand where people haven’t been able to spend on things they wanted to because they simply weren’t available, so normally you get a bit of a boom after the war. Now we don’t get that straightaway, we get an economic downtown in 1919, so the best take I can make from it is that the pandemic delays the boom. By 1921 growth goes up quite substantially and continues through for most of the 1920s.
ELISE: Whatever the cost of the pandemic it was the mere icing on the cake, as Australia carried its debts into the 1920s toward another global economic catastrophe. Frank Bongiorno.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: It was a bit of a house of cards from Australia’s point of view, really, because, yes, it had massive war debts but again, you know, it also borrowed heavily in the ‘20s. This is the period, of course, of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, there’s a lot of electrification, a lot of developments, which is largely happening with loan money and it’s increasing Australia’s indebtedness. I mean, these are mainly state governments taking out loans in London and even in New York by the 1920s and, yes, it gives a buoyancy to the economy for a few years but it also produces some really dreadful weaknesses that were being exposed, certainly as early as 1927-’28.
ELISE: And it wasn’t just the Government who let the good times get the better of them.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: The consumer economy is really taking off in the ‘20s, things like radios, of course, processed foods, even something as simple as an electric iron, you know, household appliances that are becoming more affordable for a greater number of people but, you know, they’re often doing it on credit and many people get into financial trouble, of course, because the good times didn’t last and unemployment was climbing very high even before the New York stock market collapse of 1929 so Australia plunged into a really deep depression from the late 1920s from which it really didn’t recover, arguably, until 1942, the earlier period of the Pacific War.
ELISE: Though modernisation may have taken a firm hold, the world was still relying on economic principles from a now bygone era, principles that proved ineffective in the face of such a dramatic economic collapse. Simon Ville.
PROFESSOR SIMON VILLE: The 19th century view was very much predicated on Victorian notions of thrift, saving was a good thing. Economic theory of the 19th century said we didn’t have to do very much because as the economy went through a slump the price of everything went down and therefore labour was cheaper and therefore gradually employers would re-employ, everything would self-correct. The problem was that that wasn’t happening. It went on for five, seven, eight years and it still wasn’t happening.
ELISE: As the Great Depression ground on without any evidence of this self-correction, it became clear to some economists that a new theory was needed.
PROFESSOR SIMON VILLE: The economics book of the 20th century was written in 1936 by John Maynard Keynes, who was a Cambridge economist and Keynes said “Economic cycles can get stuck in a depression for a sustained period of time.” He said, you know, there are ways we have to build demand up during a depression and basically if you look at the post-1945 period, all governments had this sort of demand management thing where the economy goes to downturn, we cut taxes, we do whatever we can to boost demand to bring the economy back into a good point again, so that really, really shifted the way economists thought from the 1930s onwards. And even though there’s been a bit of a pushback we’re still now in a situation where that basic idea of financing out of a deficit is seen as a good thing to do.
ELISE: Though it would take until 1936 for the theory of deficit financing to be written, this economic tool, being well-exercised in our current crisis, was something that Australia had first trialled out of necessity when Britain let it be known that Australia would have to pay for its own war efforts. The money just wasn’t there. A deficit was the only answer. It would also have to be the answer to the expensive soldier repatriation scheme which would fundamentally change the nation’s relationship with the Federal Government, moving it towards the model we see today where social welfare is an accepted part of our economic framework. Frank Bongiorno.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: What World War One does is it does boost the direct role of the Federal Government in everyday society and probably most obviously through the very substantial support for returned soldiers, whether it’s soldier settlement schemes where they’re supported to go onto land to farm, support for education, support for housing, pension payments for those who are incapacitated. This is very expensive. It’s one of the big financial problems of the country in the 1920s and ’30s given the very large number of returned soldiers and the incredibly difficult problems, both psychological and physical, so many of them faced.
ELISE: But not everyone who fought returned to the livelihood they’d been promised. Worimi man and historian John Maynard.
PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: Over 1,000 Aboriginal men went to the First World War and many lost their lives in serving for their country. When they came back they were not treated the same as returning white soldiers. There is now a record that six did get something, a little bit of land from the soldier resettlement but the great majority were basically told, “It doesn’t equate to you.” The other most important thing is that a lot of the land they were taking and handing over to soldiers in NSW was Aboriginal independent farms.
ELISE: As John describes it there was a bubbling resentment growing in the Aboriginal community which would lead to a formal campaign for change.
PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: The catalyst for the rise of organised Aboriginal political protest and demands for justice in this country erupted in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu, the increased pressure of taking Aboriginal land, removing Aboriginal kids and in 1924 in Sydney was the formation of the first united all-Aboriginal political organisation, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, led by my grandfather, Fred Maynard. They held the first Aboriginal convention in 1925 in Sydney and they were front-page news in the Sydney press of the time. What were the things they were talking about? Land, protecting the kids, health, housing, education, all the things that we’re still talking about today. Self-determination.
ELISE: While the AAPA did succeed in drawing the nation’s attention to their campaign, it was short-lived.
PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: There was certainly a quite widespread discussion in State Parliament and there’s discussion by the Commonwealth Government but no real action because it keeps coming back to the Protection Board and all that did was bring the police in for greater intimidation and harassment of the Aboriginal activists and that’s why the AAPA basically disappeared from public view in 1929. They were hounded out of existence and driven underground.
ELISE: As John has described, the treatment of Aboriginal soldiers after the war was just one of many concerns that drove the rise of this formal activism. The terrible death rate among Aboriginal communities hit by pneumonic influenza was also a likely factor. But had the pandemic not taken place, these events would no doubt have unfolded anyway, likewise the economic downturn, likewise John Keynes and his new economic theories, likewise the move towards social welfare. But one area that did change as a direct result of the pandemic was in the political arena of public health. Peter Hobbins.
DR PETER HOBBINS: After the pneumonic influenza pandemic had passed, Australia was held up worldwide as an example of effective quarantine and the power of enforcing quarantine to keep out infectious diseases and that was in spite of the fact that the disease had come ashore and had infected up to a third of the population.
ELISE: Though lauded for its quarantine success, the Federal Government knew that its limited jurisdiction during the pandemic had caused problems, especially when it came to its relationship with the states. This wouldn’t be the last time Australia would be faced with such a health crisis so they set about establishing a national approach with federal oversight not just of quarantine but of the research, monitoring and management of infectious disease. Frank Bongiorno.
PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: One of the really direct outcomes of the Spanish flu was the formation of a Federal Department of Health. I mean, that didn’t exist before the early 1920s and was very much a response to the problems of coordination between the states that had been revealed and come out of the Spanish influenza experience.
ELISE: With the end of the war and the dying of the pandemic, the pause button that had been held down for five years finally lifted and the world we recognise today began to emerge full of new technologies of convenience, efficiency and speed which would change the way we live and open us up to the wider world. Influenza restrictions were still in place in Darwin when Captain Ross Smith and his team landed their plane there on 10th December, 1919, becoming the first to fly from England to Australia. They’d completed the trip in 28 days, securing the £10,000 prize money with 48 hours to spare.
NEWSPAPER REPORT: “The landing was very spectacular and very picturesque.”
“The crowd rushed the airmen and carried them shoulder-high from the ground, men and women struggling to get in and shake hands with them. A citizens’ banquet is being tendered the airmen tonight despite the influenza regulations to the contrary.”
ELISE: That the people of Darwin were marking this historic step while still living the pandemic is remarkable, the timing uncanny. The safety of isolation, of having time on your side to see what’s coming and prepare, could no longer be taken for granted. Of all the surreal new realities COVID-19 has forced us to confront, one of the strangest is that we can no longer leave our island. The ease and ubiquity of international travel is gone. We return to the safety of isolation and silent skies. While the post-pandemic, post-war world rushed headlong into the excitement of the new, only to be faced with another depression, the pneumonic influenza slowly faded from public consciousness. But the scientific community did not forget. This was still a mystery in need of solving and for decades the quest to better understand the pneumonic influenza continued. In 1932, virus were first sighted by British researchers and the work to figure out what they were and how they worked could really begin. Then in 1951, a team of scientific researchers travelled to Alaska on an extraordinary mission, a search to quite literally unearth the 1918 pneumonic influenza virus from the frozen tundra. The Spanish flu hit the Inuit of Alaska hard, many communities enduring death rates of over 50%. As the pandemic continued to rage through the winter of 1918-’19, the territorial government, doing everything in their power to limit the spread, employed local gold miners to travel from village to village, digging mass graves. Expert at penetrating the frozen earth, the miners managed to reach a depth of two metres. Over 30 years later, the scientists reckoned this depth would have ensured a continuity of freezing, enough to suspend the bodies and the virus that had killed them in time. While the expedition succeeded in retrieving lung tissue, no influenza virus was identified. But all was not lost. 45 years later, scientific advances meant that should enough samples of the virus be found its genome could be sequenced. Eventually this would motivate a revival of the exhumation project and in 1997 a team of researchers followed in the footsteps of the 1951 team, travelling to Alaska to reopen the graves. This time they succeeded. The tissue they gathered, combined with samples identified at two historical tissue repositories, yielded enough genetic material to begin the mapping of the pneumonic influenza genome. Nine years later, the sequence was complete and scientists could finally answer questions that had lingered since 1918. Virologist Kirsty Short.
DR KIRSTY SHORT: It was really trying to understand why this virus was so bad and in doing so they were actually able to identify certain components of the virus that were associated with severe disease. Now that’s very important because we do a lot of influenza surveillance worldwide and the sequences of influenza strains are constantly looked at and then monitored so this information is really essential because it means that if you’re looking at what strains are circulating, say, throughout the world and all of a sudden you see these genetic signatures that you know from the 1918 virus are associated with severe disease then you can start putting the appropriate public health measures in place. So a lot of the benefits from these experiments were not only understanding treatment but also for disease surveillance and better prediction of future pandemics.
ELISE: For all the scientific advances of the last 100 years, the coronavirus has reaffirmed that there are not always immediate or easy answers. The question of preparedness is one that may dog us for years to come. As we wrap up this podcast it’s been seven months since Australia’s first case of COVID-19. Infection rates around the world have passed 20 million and shown no signs of abating. Russia claims it’s ready to roll out a vaccine and several other countries are in the final stages of human trials. After 100 days free of community transmission in New Zealand, an unexpected outbreak has seen the city of Auckland return to lockdown and Victoria has gone into stage 4 lockdown, one of the hardest in the world, as they struggle to control a second wave. Borders are closed, masks and social distancing the new normal for all of us. The actions of the individual have never mattered more and until there’s a vaccine, the only thing we can really control is ourselves. Though the way forward is full of uncertainty, one thing is for sure – we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. Public health expert Peter Curson.
PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The governments and a good proportion of the medical profession still tend to believe that we’re living in an antiseptic age, that we’ve confronted infectious disease, that we’ve beaten it, but I think, in some ways, nothing could be further from the truth. I think we’re on the edge of yet another 25 years of changing, mutating infections. We tend to think that we are the dominant species and whatever we do we can overwhelm this, and it’s not true, in a sense. Compared to the animal and microbial world, we’re a minor species.
DR KIRSTY SHORT: Viruses have been around for a very, very, very, very long time. They’re really everywhere. Even bacteria can get infected by viruses and in fact one of the places that are most dense for viruses is actually the ocean so there is incredible diversity and I think we’re only really just beginning to tap into the surface of the knowledge that we need to have about viruses.
PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: Given that most of these infections are nurtured by natural animals, we have continued to intrude on their reservoirs, either by extending cities or developing new programs of agriculture or deforestation and the fact that most of the infections that have been around for a long time begin to change, may sometimes become more virulent, they become different, but we live in such an interconnected world, such a mobile world, with so many people moving over time and space – now ally that to the fact that more and more people have been exploring more remote, exotic areas, on occasion confronting areas where zoonotic infections have been there for thousands of years. Anybody can fly in, show no symptoms at all and within a week or two spread an infection that’s never been seen here before or as a more virulent form of something that exists. I think it’s very difficult to control such things.
DR KIRSTY SHORT: It’s actually incredible but over 100 years later we’re still depending on the same public health measures but the reason for that is because they work. They are incredibly effective if everyone adheres to them. Now fast forward to today. Even though it’s not a guarantee that we will get a vaccine we have incredible technology that actually facilitate vaccine design and rapid vaccine design. The speed at which this is happening at the moment is incredible.
PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: We’re deliberately keeping ourselves indoors, we’re trying to show people that we’re following the rules but we’re also illustrating our compassion. We want to say, “Yes, we care, yes, we’re trying to do the right thing but, hey, it’ll be OK.” There’s a sense of connection between us.
DR KIRSTY SHORT: I hope that we retain the most important lessons from this and that we lose some of the negative effects like, you know, the feeling of isolation that a lot of people have. But I hope that we do learn a lot from this and we learn about the importance of health, we learn about the importance of we’re here together as a society. I mean, who knows how long people’s memory will be. It could be that when this is all over we’ll just go back to how things were, I don’t know.
PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: It’s hard to know what will be kept and what won’t and of course I’m talking about things we can see now. I really hope that we’re also scraping a lot of the social media data and that we’re keeping a record of websites and messaging and email – they’re the things I think will help people a century on understand how today’s society coped just as I’m grateful for everything that survives at repositories like the State Library of NSW to help me understand how our community coped 101 years ago when we faced a dramatically similar crisis.
DR KIRSTY SHORT: Essentially viruses are very, very, simplistic intracellular parasites almost and it’s incredible that these things that you can’t even see with your bare eye can have such a remarkable effect on human history.
ELISE: We want to sincerely thank our contributors for sharing their wealth of knowledge and expertise with us at this busy and difficult time, Dr Peter Hobbins, Professor Peter Curson, Dr Kirsty Short, Professor John Maynard, Professor Frank Bongiorno and Professor Simon Ville. Thanks also to our performers Anni Finsterer, Tim Withers, André de Vanny, Brandon Burke, Nicholas Hope, Bill Conn, Catherine Bryant, Catherine Timbrell and Alice Tonkinson. The Gatherings Order was researched, written and produced by Sabrina Organo with research, editorial input and narration by me, Elise Edmonds. Sound design by Unison Sound. Thanks to Rawiya Jenkins, Vanessa Bond, Cathy Perkins and Jude Page for their editorial support. And thanks to you for listening. If you have a moment to rate and review The Gatherings Order, we’d appreciate it. It helps other people find the podcast. If you’re in Sydney between 5th September 2020 and 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. We hope that we’re able to stay open for you during Covid times. If not, there’s always plenty going on online. You can visit our website at www.sl.nsw.gov.au. Thanks for listening and take care.