Been there before 

• Soldiers receiving treatment for Spanish flu back in 1918. There’s an interesting attitude to masks.

‘Unprecedented’ or unprepared?

A MEDICAL historian says today’s Covid-19 pandemic isn’t quite as “unprecedented” as politicians would like us to think, with many similarities to the Spanish flu in the early 20th century.

University of Sydney honorary affiliate Peter Hobbins says during the 1918 pandemic, the most effective measures were quarantining and restricting public assembly. He said maritime quarantine, equivalent to air travel bans today, worked “amazingly”.

Dr Hobbins says about 15,000 Australians died of the flu, which had similar social and economic effects as Covid-19: “Many businesses were shut down, many people were sick; people that weren’t sick were afraid,” he said.

With no Medicare in 1919, Dr Hobbins says he has a “strong suspicion” more people would have died from the pneumonic influenza pandemic if not for the charity of neighbours as well as emergency depots and hospitals set up by local councils and charity groups such as Red Cross.

for the charity of neighbours as well as emergency depots and hospitals set up by local councils and charity groups such as Red Cross. 

“In 1919 if you were sick and needed help, you would hang up a yellow flag or a white sheet or a card printed with the letters SOS on your doorway,” Dr Hobbins said. 

He likens this to the teddy bears in windows and rainbow chalked footpaths that have been used during the current crisis. 

Dr Hobbins says another important similarity between the two pandemics was Australians pulling together and voluntarily staying home to maintain social distancing.

Low socio-economic areas in Australia were the hardest hit in 1918, with working-class suburbs in cities such as Sydney and Melbourne the worst affected.

GIVIT has continued operating during the COVID-19 pandemic to support the Australians in need. The charity is currently running a nationwide Covid-19 appeal to provide essential items such as food and cookware.

GIVIT support worker Sarah Visser says needs that have always been there have been “exacerbated” by Covid-19 and more people are needing charity than ever. 


“If it’s not in your immediate experience you don’t realise the extent of the poverty here in WA,” she said. 

With many families struggling to put food on the table, she says GIVIT is supporting neighbourhood centres which are providing emergency relief.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, which regulates Australian charities, says a mix of initiatives and interventions are needed to support those suffering during the pandemic.

“In many cases, charities are in the best position, with expertise, experience and resources, to address immediate needs,” an ACNC spokesperson told the Voice.


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