Photo by Australian National Maritime Museum on Flickr

The ghosts of royal commissions past

28 May 2020

Professor Roger Bradbury

When the COVID-19 crisis ends, there’ll be a royal commission to count the bodies and sheet home some blame, and there will be too much of both to go around, Roger Bradbury writes.

Already, ever-canny politicians are preparing the ground by blame-shifting – ‘we followed expert advice’ – and blame-sharing – ‘we reached our decisions by consensus’.

But while Australia waits to see if it is out of the woods, it could do no better than look back a century to New Zealand’s royal commission on the Spanish flu pandemic. It is regarded by many who follow such things as the world’s best contemporary enquiry into that pandemic.

There are eerie parallels here. Not only was the Spanish flu, like today’s Wuhan virus, a novel, highly infectious, and lethal virus to which no one had immunity, but also the bureaucratic and political response was slow, inept, and ineffective in many countries. Perhaps some things never change.

The Spanish flu hit New Zealand in two waves. The first, in the southern winter of 1918, was like a typical influenza season, with a low mortality mostly limited to the elderly and infirm. By the spring, New Zealand, like the rest of the world, had recovered.

But the virus then mutated to a much more deadly form, somewhere in Europe – still highly infectious, but it was now particularly lethal to young and fit adults.

The second wave started to spread around the world in late September. In early October, the RMS Niagara arrived in Auckland Harbour. It carried soldiers returning from the war, as well as civilians, and there were about 100 cases of the flu on board. At least one crew member had died from the virus on the voyage, and about 25 passengers needed urgent hospitalisation.

The standard procedure was for the ship to stand off in quarantine in the harbour. But the ship also carried William Massey, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Sir Joseph Ward, his deputy, returning from the Imperial War Cabinet in London.

The Health Minister, George Warren Russell, waived quarantine for the ship, and allowed all passengers to disembark. He made this decision in the teeth of protests from the medical associations, saying ‘all necessary precautions had been taken’.

Later, the Chief Medical Officer, Robert Makgill, argued, weakly, that the arrival of the Niagara and the spread of the virus were coincidental, and that there had been a local mutation of the earlier flu already in New Zealand. He offered no evidence. Massey and Ward said they had no part in the decisions to waive quarantine of the Niagara. Blame-shifting is as old as politics.

Once off the ship, the virus spread very rapidly. Over the next six weeks it killed about 9000 people across the country, about half the number of New Zealanders killed in the Great War. It remains the greatest civil disaster ever to befall New Zealand.

And over the next six weeks, ordinary New Zealanders, in their enterprising way, behaved magnificently, while the government was left in the dust.

As the disease spread, health services came under stress, the news spread from town to town, and Kiwis organised themselves.

From late October, they elected town and district committees, and coordinated volunteers and charities to stop society from collapsing, filling the gaps left by sick workers, especially in the health system.

Large firms released their staff to nurse the sick and volunteer for relief work, and ordinary Kiwis saved many lives and relieved the burden on flu sufferers, at risk to their own lives. The health department managed to produce and distribute a handbill, but it was circulated after the peak of the epidemic.

Nurses and doctors around the country worked long shifts. Many died. They were ‘lions led by donkeys’, as a phrase often used to describe the trenches of the war would describe it.

The first act of the citizens’ committee in Auckland in late October was to send an urgent appeal to Wellington for government assistance; Russell, the Minister of Health, took no immediate action.

But in mid-November, as the epidemic was peaking, he declared the flu a notifiable disease and gave local authorities more power to combat it. At a time when days, not weeks, mattered, this was too little, too late.

By Christmas 1918, it was all over. The dead were buried, the living glad to be alive, but hugely critical of the performance of the government during the crisis. A royal commission was established to pick the scabs from the still-fresh wounds.

Across New Zealand, in its towns and villages, as well as the gravestones there are statues and memorials to the local heroes of the crisis – the nurses, doctors and others who made a difference. There are no statues of Russell and Makgill.

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