GIPPSLAND historian Erik Eklund believes World War I prepared the region to respond to the 1919 flu pandemic.
Mr Eklund outlined his theory at the Korumburra Historical Society’s annual Cath Ritchie Memorial Talk where he also questioned how well modern society would deal with a similar global health emergency.
His presentation coincided with the centenary of the so-called Spanish influenza that claimed more than 50 million lives worldwide after World War I ended.
Mr Eklund said his research focused on bringing global events into a regional frame to understand how this region was affected and to identify the relationships between global events and regional histories.
“Towards the end of the Great War, global conditions were conducive to the rapid spread of a new virus through weakened and highly mobile military and civilian populations,” he said.
“Imagine the kind of conditions that were apparent. The Western Front, behind the lines, military hospitals, clearing stations in military camps, large numbers of men, many of them wounded, many of them in weakened states.
“Civilian populations on the move, being transferred, also dealing with malnutrition, dealing with the general debilitation that came with war-time conditions.
“So, in other words, kind of a perfect storm for a new virus.”
Mr Eklund said people shifted quickly from the grief and anxiety of four years of war to the trouble, stress, strain and challenges of the pandemic.
His research showed maritime quarantine measures delayed the arrival of the flu in Australia but, once here, it spread to regional areas by passengers travelling on the train lines.
“It’s pretty obvious how we worked together in 1919 was based on what was done previous years,” Mr Eklund said.
“The shires, Red Cross committees, medical authorities, volunteers, all worked together in war-time conditions. In many ways, the pandemic was a continuation of these emergency conditions.”
The Korumburra State School in Mine Road was one of many across Gippsland converted into a temporary influenza hospital.
In documents held by the Korumburra Historical Society, Arthur Pullin recalled being a student at the Korumburra school in 1919.
“There was an outbreak of influenza and many people died and the Korumburra State School was taken over as a hospital and school classes were held in the various halls,” Mr Pullin wrote.
“I attended classes in the Salvation Army Hall, the fire brigade hall and the large drill hall. The drill hall had partitions made of hessian to divide the classes.”
Mr Eklund said dramatic sweeping events such as war and public health emergencies had the capacity to unite societies around common challenges and goals.
“It strikes me without the kinds of voluntary ethos and sense of sacrifice that was
required during the war, the pandemic would have been so much more difficult to deal with,” he said.
“These events have the capacity to reveal the limits of a society’s tolerance, it’s finite resources and sometimes hidden divisions.
“As a fragmented and highly individualistic society, do we still have the capacity for this collective action?”
Mr Eklund said the role of historians was to study the past in order to probe and challenge the future.
‘Perfect storm’ for new virus – Lessons learnt from flu outbreak