Historian discusses what we can learn from our deadliest pandemic

After four years of war in 1918 New Zealanders had had enough of bloodshed and death.

Over 16,000 New Zealanders had been killed fighting for Britain in what was then simply known as 'The Great War', so when the world's deadliest pandemic hit our young nation at the end of the war, it was the cruelest of blows.

It's believed more than 9000 New Zealanders perished from this deadly strain of the flu in six weeks during October and November.

Historian Dr Stephen Clarke told Newshub Nation any war-winning celebrations were put on hold, as Kiwis struggled to keep themselves and their families alive.

"You could go to work in the morning and have no symptoms, and be dead by the end of that day, and it was just the sheer numbers, in Auckland over 1200 died within a few weeks," Dr Clarke says.

"Funerals were suspended, the bodies were collected at Victoria Park in central Auckland, put on a train and brought here to Waikumete Cemetery next to the Glen Eden station, 24 hour shifts of grave diggers. So you're getting dozens and dozens dying per day and this was a place of mass burial.

"In some cases families went down really quickly, and there was a case in central Auckland when a sign put up in the window saying 'please help us', and by the time the services got round to them, the whole family had died of flu in there."

The flu hit New Zealand's isolated Māori communities particularly hard, with 2000 dying, and Dr Clarke believes the Rātana faith, led by church leader and faith healer Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, was born out of the aftermath.

"One of the legacy's is the Rātana faith, because Rātana was probably suffering from flu when he had his vision about bringing people together."

Did New Zealand's war-ready society actually help to save lives?

Dr Clarke believes New Zealand society, which was at the time heavily militarized and regulated after four years of war, was actually in a good position to respond to the flu outbreak.

"The minister of health put out regulations that would assist in combating this flu, but also the war relief committee used to raise funds turned into influenza communities, so it was about communities coming together, and it didn't matter how many doctors and nurses you had, it was really about communities helping each other as well to combat this flu."

Where are all the influenza memorials?

While there are hundreds of war memorials dotted throughout New Zealand honouring the war dead from the South African and World Wars, there are only a handful of memorials to the deadly flu pandemic.

"Going to war, serving your country was heroic, and there just didn't seem to be anything heroic about dying from the flu," Dr Clarke says.

"One of our few memorials to the influenza of 1918 is the Christchurch nurses war memorial, which also includes those nurses, 30 actually, who died in 1918."

What can today's society learn from the pandemic?

Dr Clarke believes while we don't really know who are neighbours are today, one hundred years ago neighbourhood bonds helped to save lives, and they would be needed again if a similar deadly flu strain hit.

"I think it's about ensuring that our communities are ready, are prepared, have plans in place, but it comes down to basic human nature to look after the guy on your left… to look after their neighbours and their family members, and I think that would be important."

"Our hospital systems, our medical systems are going to be under immense stress during an influenza of that type."

Follow Tony Wright on Twitter @TonyWrightNZ

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