Struggles around the world with the Covid19 virus have reminded us of the terrible flu epidemic that began in the final weeks of WWI. Good grief, as if there hadn’t been enough suffering! Then as now, quarantine measures were of paramount importance.
There was one South Pacific island where the toll was devastating, but which could have been avoided…….New Zealand administered Western Samoa.
When war was declared in 1914, Britain asked New Zealand to seize what was then German Samoa. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan an expeditionary force landed on August 29, meeting with no resistance. Germany had bigger battles to fight.
On November 7 1918, the NZ administration allowed the S.S. Talune to berth in Western Samoa. The ship been given a clean bill of health, despite the extreme likelihood of flu being carried aboard from New Zealand, where many people were already ill. The ship was not quarantined and within a week, the sickness had spread throughout the territory. This area of Samoa suffered more than any other island in the Pacific, with 90% of the population infected. In stark contrast, American administered Samoa remained free of the disease, due to strict quarantine regulations.
At the height of the flu epidemic in Samoa there were scenes reminiscent of Europe in the days of the bubonic plague. A lorry circled villages daily to collect the dead. Funeral traditions and rituals had to be abandoned as there were just too many bodies.
One youth did his very best to lay his family to rest;
‘…there was discovered a boy of 16, who was trying to bury some of his relatives, with the assistance of a very old woman and some children. His method was this: He would dig a grave, as near as possible to the house and if light enough he would carry the corpse and drop it into the grave. If it was too heavy, as he was in a weak state himself, he would tie a rope to the body and drag it to the graveside, where he would, with the help of other children, roll it into the grave. By such method he had buried quite a number of his relatives. Daily Mail (Brisbane April 4 1919).
Shops closed, and crops failed because there was nobody well enough to tend them.
An eyewitness described the situation in the Samoa Observer; Every house was closed up with mats and inside the gloom, the suffering of the inmates was pitiable to behold. Some lay withering on the ground, some were found covered in mats, sweltering in agony beneath the coverings, others lay in silence. Here and there a sheet of tapa cloth covered a form, recumbent and still, indication only too well that the foul disease had finished its work.
100 people died from flu in a single village.
AUCKLAND. Saturday. The report of the Samoan Epidemic Commission states that influenza was introduced by the S.S. Talune in November, and spread with amazing rapidity, causing 7,582 deaths – 19.6% of the population, and the subsequent death rate was so high that it is safe to assume that the total went to 8,500. In addition, many were suffering from the after effects, and were totally incapacitated. Notwithstanding the outbreak in New Zealand, the Talune was given a clean bill of health….It is stated in the report that the Health Officer [in Samoa] had been given no instructions and the utmost confusion reigned.
Giving evidence during the report, Administrator Robert Logan said of the resentment caused;
Logan was strongly condemned, and discharged from his position in September 1919.
The final estimation of those who died was close to 25%. It was a loss that would be felt for generations to come.
AID FROM AUSTRALIA
Unaccountably, medical assistance from nearby American Samoa had been rejected by Robert Logan, causing the situation to deteriorate rapidly. Local health workers were among the first to succumb, and medical supplies soon ran out. On November 19 a message was sent to Wellington requesting assistance. Tragically, this was turned down on the grounds that all doctors were needed in New Zealand, where flu was also taking a huge toll. Australia offered the only other source of aid, and the call went out.
A message was telegraphed to the ship H.M.A.S Encounter on November 22 and a medical team was assembled. Blankets, tents, drugs and dry foods were hastily procured and loaded. The ship left Melbourne on Sunday afternoon, November 24. It was one of Australia’s first overseas humanitarian missions. By this time the flu epidemic had begun to subside , but for survivors the arrival of the Encounter offered hope and comfort.
In 2002, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark issued an official apology to the people of Samoa for her country’s failings during the flu epidemic.