Until COVID-19 struck, very few had ever spared a thought for the ‘forgotten flu’ and the up to 15,000 Australians who died from the brutal pandemic that swept the globe during 1918-19.
Despite the topic being memorialised extensively in the northern hemisphere, Australia’s experience of Spanish Flu was largely overlooked, perhaps because it was buried in the trauma of World War One which had just ended.
Intrigued by the parallels with the current pandemic – the mask wearing, the quarantining, the social isolation – Australian Story delved into the archives and sought out the country’s expert historians.
For the first time on television, our producers have pulled together photos, video and oral testimonies to provide a unique insight into the time and discovered some remarkable stories of quiet courage and heroism from ordinary Australians.
“One thinks of heroes in relation to war and not in relation to illness but there were heroes, doctors and nurses, and neighbours who went to each other’s aid and who risked their lives for the wellbeing of others,” says Melbourne historian Dr Anthea Hyslop.
The parallels between the past and the present are uncanny.
“Despite our wealth of health resources today, ultimately the sorts of measures most of us are following are strikingly similar to those we saw in 1919,” says historian Dr Peter Hobbins.
As we deal with the uncertainty of COVID-19, can we look to the past to provide us with an understanding of the future?
“If we don’t look back, if we don’t learn each time we have these viral outbreaks, then we are condemned to make the same mistakes over and over again,” says virologist Dr Kirsty Short.