Flu, society and the state: the political, social and economic implications of the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic in Queensland

Hodgson, Patrick George (2017) Flu, society and the state: the political, social and economic implications of the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic in Queensland. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Abstract

The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 was the most serious pandemic in modern world history. Around the globe, tens of millions of people died and hundreds of millions more were infected with a highly virulent virus. Despite the human suffering, the social and economic costs to countries have yet to be fully assessed. Not only did the pandemic impose huge demands on public health systems, it also exacted substantial economic and emotional costs on families, communities and governments which struggled to contain "the scourge". The possibility of a similar infectious disease outbreak in the future has focused research back to this quintessential pandemic as a foundational model for the likely impacts of a modern-day recurrence. However, much of the research has focused on the United States of America, neglecting the experience of many other regions throughout the world. This thesis aims to address this oversight in relation to Queensland's experience of the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic. Whilst not discounting the numerous histories on the pandemic's devastating morbidity and mortality, if one of the most significant disease events in world history is to be fully comprehended then, of necessity, the lived experience of the ordinary person must be appreciated. Officially, nearly one thousand persons are recognised as having died of influenza in Queensland and 13,000 in Australia overall, during the pandemic. Whilst this number pales in significance compared to New Zealand, South Africa and many countries in the northern hemisphere, each death or case of illness was borne by family and friends as well as within the wider community in which the person lived and worked. Based on a critical examination of primary and secondary sources, this thesis provides a nuanced and multi-dimensional analysis of the full gamut of impacts the pandemic had on the state of Queensland and the lived experiences of its people.

The thesis begins with an outline of the pandemic as it spread around the world, before moving on to examine the powers of the state in matters of public health and the machinery at its disposal to respond to the crisis. The pandemic placed the fledgling federation of Australia in a quandary. The Queensland government felt impeded in its ability to combat the pandemic through the unwelcome interference and centralist attitude of the Commonwealth. Even so, the state government was not in a position to undertake the necessary work on the ground. The government viewed the town and shire councils as ideal vehicles to combat the epidemic that had broken out virtually simultaneously throughout the state, as well as to mobilise the thousands of volunteers, upon whom much of the day to day work in contending with the effects of the disease fell as the epidemic rolled through communities across the state.

While the impact on the public health system cannot be overstated, the pandemic period in Queensland coincided with the return of troops from the battlefields of World War One, a state-wide drought and consequent food shortage, labour struggles and maritime strikes, as well as the political tensions and intrigues of a floundering federalism. This thesis elucidates how the pandemic disrupted work and recreation schedules, caused statewide absenteeism and lost productivity in the workplace, as well as creating an overall environment of confusion, panic and resentment. Coming full circle, the thesis ends its examination of lived experiences of the pandemic by looking at the remembrance of its victims. The conclusion reached is that, despite the Australian authorities' penchant for military sacrifice as the defining symbol of nationhood, public memorialisation of civilians – even those who sacrificed their lives in helping others during the pandemic – has long been regarded as lacking sufficient worthiness.

This thesis is not a history of the epidemiology of influenza; rather it is a historical examination of the lived experience of ordinary Queenslanders during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic. It provides a compelling snapshot of Queensland society trying to grapple with an unparalleled civil crisis at the close of an unprecedented war. Perhaps the strongest message coming through this history is that whilst actions in a time of crisis may not always define the general tenor of societies, knowledge of a community and its people is just as important as having knowledge of epidemiology or medicine in combating infectious disease epidemics.

Item ID: 52042
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: 1918-1920, epidemic, flu, influenza pandemic, lived experiences, Queensland, Spanish influenza pandemic
Date Deposited: 17 Jan 2018 04:58
FoR Codes: 21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2103 Historical Studies > 210303 Australian History (excl Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History) @ 90%
21 HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 2103 Historical Studies > 210301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History @ 10%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9505 Understanding Past Societies > 950503 Understanding Australias Past @ 100%
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