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It's been described as “unprecedented”, but COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic to hit New Zealand. So how unique is this crisis and the government's response to it?

It's been the buzz word used by countless politicians and thought leaders to describe the COVID-19 global pandemic and the times we're now living in. But University of Otago Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Humanities) Professor Tony Ballantyne says epidemics and pandemics are not “unprecedented” and the government's handling of it has a strong foundation in history.


In 1875 waves of disease drove a 25% increase in New Zealand's death rate.

“Disease is a powerful engine that has shaped the development of human societies for many centuries,” Ballantyne says.

“Epidemic outbreaks have been a common feature in New Zealand's history that most people now are not aware of.”

As part of his research exploring cultural and intellectual life in 19th century Otago, which began as a Marsden Fund project, Ballantyne examined how disease shaped the development of the region. In September 2020, he is delivering a keynote talk on the historical dimensions of New Zealand's COVID-19 response as part of a US virtual conference on the importance of the Humanities in this global moment.

“While shutting schools and businesses and requiring people to stay at home to control the spread of the disease may feel new and 'unprecedented', the government's response to the pandemic has built upon earlier experiences and practices,” he says. “More broadly, disease has been a powerful agent that has shaped New Zealand society, so COVID-19 is not unprecedented.”

Since 1817, when influenza was first reported among Māori on the coasts of Foveaux Strait, New Zealand has been hit by widespread epidemics. During the later 19th century, New Zealand experienced a sequence of outbreaks of epidemic diseases that killed thousands of people.

In 1863-64, scarlet fever killed 120 people in Dunedin alone – a city with a population of 20,000 people. Another outbreak followed in the mid-1870s killing 834 nationwide. This overlapped with an explosion of diphtheria which accounted for 480 deaths, measles 340 deaths, tuberculosis which killed 339 in 1875, and typhoid which killed 323 that same year.

In 1875 these waves of disease were devastating for a colony of just 340,000 people and drove a 25 per cent increase in New Zealand's death rate.

“The 1880s saw further outbreaks of scarlet fever, diphtheria and typhoid, while between 1890 and 1894 an influenza outbreak caused the deaths of 1,400 New Zealanders,” says Ballantyne.

“These are huge events for the population – and posed a major political question: how would local and central government respond?”

Ballantyne says much of the final third of the 19th century was dedicated to improving public sanitation through developing better drainage, more effective sewage systems and water supplies. Because of these improvements, by 1900 death rates by infectious diseases reduced to a third of what they were in 1875.

Despite these improvements the 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed 50 million globally, hit New Zealand hard, with almost 9,000 New Zealanders dying in late 1918 (out of a population of 1.15 million). New Zealand's public health system became over-stretched and left some communities especially vulnerable. Military camps saw especially high-rates of infection, the small towns of Wairio and Nightcaps in Southland had high mortality rates, and a number of predominantly Māori communities such as Mangatāwhiri and Panguru were badly affected.

As an imperial power, New Zealand was also central in the spread of the disease in the Pacific. The Talune, a New Zealand vessel, introduced influenza to Apia. The New Zealand authorities imposed no quarantine restrictions, sick passengers disembarked and the disease spread rapidly. In total, 8,500 people died in Samoa – 22 per cent of the population, the highest death rate of anywhere in the world. This damaged New Zealand's reputation in the Pacific and contributed to the independence movement in Samoa. The current New Zealand government's swift introduction of measures to control travel to the Pacific suggests important lessons have been learnt from our country's imperial past.

Tony Ballantyne
Professor Tony Ballantyne
: “Disease has been a powerful agent that has shaped New Zealand society… ”

According to Ballantyne, there are strong echoes of the past in the government's response to COVID-19 and in what he sees as misleading debates that suggest that public health and economic interests are incompatible.

In response to influenza in 1918 schools, theatres and cinemas were closed – and, after much debate, pubs too. In the face of polio outbreaks children were home schooled, with lessons published in newspapers and, later, radio broadcasts.

There was a sequence of major polio outbreaks from 1916 until 1956. Fears of infantile paralysis caused deep anxiety across the population and successive governments took decisive action – such as placing close contacts in quarantine, encouraging self-isolation and social distancing – to stop its spread. During the biggest outbreaks, hundreds of children died and many more faced lasting health issues.

During the 1936 outbreak, all schools closed from late November until after the 1937 May holidays. Movie theatres and churches were closed and children couldn't travel. For a period of weeks, Dunedin was cut off from the rest of the country with patrols in place to stop residents leaving the city.

“While shutting schools and businesses and requiring people to stay at home to control the spread of the disease may feel new and 'unprecedented', the government's response to the pandemic has built upon earlier experiences and practices.”

“What's happened in New Zealand since March this year is a cohesive national response where every New Zealander feels like they are part of a team of five million and we've embraced that,” says Ballantyne.

“We've seen an enthusiastic response and a high degree of acceptance to the lockdown measures imposed, which is a similar pattern to earlier outbreaks. It shows New Zealanders have a high degree of trust in our government and, as a national community, we're prepared to undergo significant change if it's going to protect the health and welfare of our communities.”

Ballantyne says the major point of difference between historic outbreak responses to the current pandemic is that there is much more reflection on the significance of cultural difference.

“When you look at historical outbreaks, governments consistently fail Māori. For instance, all 55 people who died during the 1913 smallpox outbreak were Māori, and Māori mortality rates were much higher in 1918. Stricter limitations on movement were imposed on Māori than Pākehā during outbreaks, even when Pākeha were infected.

“During the response to COVID-19, government agencies have engaged with Māori around important tikanga, such as hongi, and have allowed iwi to monitor people travelling.

“Many of our cabinet ministers are Māori and Pasifika and having those perspectives inside Cabinet has seen a far greater sensitivity to the needs of Māori and Pacific communities – which is a positive development on the past.”


Marsden Fund

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