In 1919, Anzac Day was commemorated despite the Spanish flu pandemic. In 2020, we will remember them again



AAP/Paul Miller

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National University

Anzac Day 2020 will be a far cry from the Australian War Memorial’s dawn service of recent years. While dignified and solemn, the dawn service has also been spectacle. Sophisticated technology is used to project images from the memorial’s photographic collection onto the building. From an hour before the service, members of the armed forces read from the diaries and letters of men and women who have served in war over more than a century.

The choreography of the whole event is unmistakable as national performance. Even the birdlife at the foot of Mount Ainslie seems to recognise it has a role to play with its singing and screeching and laughing – instantly recognisable as an Australian soundscape – alongside the speechmakers, catafalque party and bugling of the Last Post.




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How Australia’s response to the Spanish flu of 1919 sounds warnings on dealing with coronavirus


This year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it will be different. The dawn service will be held without members of the public, but will be televised on the ABC and streamed online. There will be no local marches.

The Returned and Services League (RSL) has encouraged people to film themselves reciting the ode in their homes and post it online. The RSL is partnering with News Corp in Light Up The Dawn, asking Australians to step into their driveways to observe a minute’s silence, possibly carrying a candle or using mobile phones for illumination. They have even created a virtual candle you can download to your phone.

We can be sure the novelty of the 2020 Anzac Day commemoration will attract plenty of media attention. The Australian media have a ready-made, multipurpose rhetoric that is easily adapted to whatever novelty – minor or otherwise – each year’s Anzac season brings with it. This year will be no exception.

We can expect to read and hear of Australians in these troubled times expressing mateship, of children in pyjamas and dressing gowns showing the young are connecting more and more with Anzac each year, that coronavirus has not dampened the Anzac spirit of the nation – and so on. We will learn of the doughty Australian suburbanites who weren’t going to let a mere global pandemic get in the way of their appreciation of those who defend their freedoms. Our health workers will be seen as displaying the self-sacrifice and heroism of Anzac, born all those years ago on the shores of Gallipoli.

Anzac 2020 will be less novel than it is presented. In the enforced private nature of Anzac commemoration in 2020, we are being returned to some of the earliest themes in Anzac commemoration.

While the day has had its elements of public ritual since 1916, much early Anzac Day commemoration was private rather than public, sometimes conducted at the gravesides of Australian soldiers buried in cemeteries in Britain and Australia. Women were prominent in these efforts, honouring the memories of men they might or might not have known by placing flowers on their tombs.

There was no big Anzac Day march in Sydney in 1919. At the time, Spanish flu was ravaging the world.
Parramatta Heritage Centre

There are other echoes of the past. Anzac Day in 1919 was also disrupted by a major crisis in public health. In New South Wales, where the rate of infection from Spanish influenza was high and the number of deaths – approaching 1,000 by Anzac Day – was alarming, the government had banned public meetings.

The government called off the march until May 22. When that happened, it was a fiasco. Rain prompted organisers to decide against marching all the way to Sydney’s Domain, and soldiers and sailors who had come from Central Railway Station instead slipped straight into the service in the Town Hall. Unfortunately, no one remembered to tell the thousands of people lining the streets to watch.

On Anzac Day itself, there had still been activity – more than we’ll see this year. The Centre for Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers appealed to the parents of the city’s children – home for their Easter break – to take their Shakespeare down from the shelf and read their children Henry V’s speech to his troops before Agincourt.

Gallipoli might have made the nation, but Australians still looked for inspiration to a much longer British history stretching back through Mafeking, Rorke’s Drift, Balaclava, Waterloo and Trafalgar – and even further to that “band of brothers” who made short work of the French on St Crispin’s Day, 1415.

The Centre of Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers held a service in the Domain. “Womenfolk, many of them in mourning, preponderated”, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, and most were wearing masks. The location of this service was pointed: it was at Woolloomooloo Bay, where so many soldiers had embarked for the war.

Outside Sydney, there was also some disruption. “The Approach of Anzac Day this year was overlooked locally,” explained a local newspaper at Dorrigo in northern New South Wales. “Owing to the presence of the influenza epidemic, the thoughts of the people seem to have been turned away from other things.” But there were Anzac Day activities; a surprising number, actually.

Anzac Day was commemorated at Lismore, notwithstanding that the town had seen several serious cases of influenza and, in the week before Anzac Day, the deaths of two men. At Grafton, thousands enjoyed a soldiers’ carnival. And in the other states, there were few signs of difficulty:

Adelaide was gay with flags from end to end, and the trains and tramcars brought thousands of people into the central city to view the procession of soldiers.

In Brisbane, despite heavy rain, the route of a march of soldiers and returned men “was lined with thousands of people”.


Australia Post

A subdued Anzac Day in Perth was attributed not to the influenza but to the authorities’ hope that the proclamation of peace in Europe would be timed so that the two “celebrations” might merge.

In 1919, as soldiers returned to Australia on ships and often went into quarantine, the nature of Anzac Day commemoration remained fluid. It was still not a public holiday, and the Anzac Day march had not yet become an essential or permanent fixture of the city commemorations. Melbourne had no march on April 25 1919, but then it didn’t have a march on most other Anzac Days in these early years, either.




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Some will be disappointed there will be no marches and other public gatherings this year. But Anzac Day 2020 is less likely to be recalled as an absence than as yet another way in which Australians adapted their national life to the challenges of the greatest public health crisis for a century.The Conversation

Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’ve known about pandemic health messaging since 1918. So when it comes to coronavirus, what has Australia learnt?



GPA Photoarchive/US Dept of State, CC BY-NC

Elizabeth Stephens, The University of Queensland

Australia’s coronavirus public health messaging has been criticised as confusing during a time when health guidelines and regulations are changing rapidly, and educating the public about health is more vital than ever.

The slow roll-out of its public information campaign of videos and posters, urging people to wash their hands and keep their distance, has also been criticised.

But we’ve known how pandemic public health messaging works since the 1918 influenza pandemic, a largely forgotten, but important historical precedent for the current crisis.

We know from 1918 that pandemic public health messages need to be communicated widely and clearly, and to be consistent with government messaging and policies.

For this, messaging needs to be regulated by centralised, government agencies.

So which lessons has Australia learnt from the past?




Read more:
How Australia’s response to the Spanish flu of 1919 sounds warnings on dealing with coronavirus


Communicating widely works

This 1918 advertisement warns about the spread of influenza.
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Author provided

Public health education campaigns have long played a pivotal role in managing public health, especially in moments of crisis.

Public health education, as we know it, is just over a century old. It is a product of the first world war, when more soldiers died of disease than injury.

Many of the earliest public health education campaigns focused on curbing the transmission of infectious diseases, more specifically, using posters to warn about venereal diseases (sexually transmitted infections).

But there are only a handful of posters warning about the influenza pandemic of 1918, which would go on to kill 50-100 million people, many times more than the war itself.

Partly this is because influenza broke out during the final stages of the war, when national resources were stretched thin.

It is also perhaps because it was initially overshadowed by that other great epidemic disease of the 19th century: tuberculosis.

Flyer warning about the spread of common infectious diseases made during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
US Library of Congress, Author provided

However, as influenza spread around the world with returning servicemen in 1918, efforts were made to slow its transmission through new public health education initiatives, such as distributing information flyers.

The US city of Philadelphia, for instance, distributed 20,000 flyers warning about the transmission of influenza in 1918.

At the same time, however, it also decided to proceed with a large public parade, which attracted 200,000 thousand people.

Within three days, every hospital in Philadelphia was full. By the end of the first week, 2,600 people had died. Six weeks later, over 12,000 were dead.

But the city of St Louis moved quickly to introduce measures like the ones we see today: shutting schools, cinemas, churches, and businesses. Some 700 died.

The difference between Philadelphia and St Louis is one of the most important lessons to learn from the 1918 influenza epidemic: “flattening the curve” works to limit transmission of infectious diseases, minimising the impact on health services.


The Conversation/PNAS, CC BY-ND

It’s a message that’s been stressed in the current health messaging, not only by government, but by medical professionals and statistical modellers.

Current public health messaging to “flatten the curve” has had a demonstrable effect on public behaviour, encouraging widespread social distancing and self-isolation.

However, this message was undermined by what many perceived as the government’s slowness in introducing social distancing measures as a containment policy, and mixed messaging around their implementation.

In the middle of March, as events like the Melbourne Grand Prix seemed prepared to go ahead, some feared we were watching another Philadelphia in the making.




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Effective government health messaging helps stem misinformation

Before the launch of the Australian government’s public education campaign, a wave of posts from the public on social media urged people to wash their hands for 20 seconds and physically distance from older relatives.

Millions of people watched the video of Arnold Schwarzenegger feeding carrots to a miniature donkey and pony, while encouraging his audience to stay inside.

And in the UK, a 17-year-old boy created a popular online tool that adds 20 seconds of your chosen song lyrics to a poster on hand-washing.

These examples represent something new: public health messages produced and circulated by the public, perhaps one of the most significant legacies of COVID-19, changing a century of practice in public health education.




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While such initiatives are doubtlessly well-intentioned, they have moved public health education from government agencies and traditional media online, into a largely unregulated space.

Inevitably, we are seeing the circulation of medical misinformation.




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This was also evident in the unregulated health sector of 1918, with a flourishing market in quack medical treatments, including ones that contained arsenic, camphor or mercury.

One of the key lessons of the 1918 influenza epidemic was, precisely, the importance of efficient and regulated public health communication.

This led directly to the foundation of national health organisations and media outlets. In the UK, the Ministry of Health was established in 1919, the BBC in 1922. In Australia, the Department of Health was established in 1921, the ABC in 1932.

However, with health regulations changing daily and announcements often made late at night, we need to ensure public health communication keeps pace with government health policy, and public messaging about both is clear and consistent.

How about future health campaigns?

The coronavirus is pushing so much of life online and the digital sphere grows more culturally influential.

To stem misinformation, robustly funded and well-resourced government health agencies and government public information campaigns are more important than ever.

During the current crisis, we have the opportunity to learn from the past, while taking advantage of new possibilities.

For instance, government health education can make greater use of social media to explain changing public health policy and regulations.

As Australia prepares for an extended and unprecedented period of mandatory self-isolating, ongoing clear and consistent messaging will be more important than ever.The Conversation

Elizabeth Stephens, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Cultural Studies, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.