COVID-19 and Australia’s unlearnt lessons

Professional rat catchers killed thousands of rodents following the arrival of the Black Death.

On January 19, 1900 Dr Sinclair Gillies, an honorary physician at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, was asked to identify strange flu-like symptoms in a 33-year-old delivery driver.

Arthur Paine’s work had regularly brought him into contact with the city’s Central Wharf at Darling Harbour, where he had been bitten on the left foot by a rat.

With considerable trepidation, Dr Gillies attributed the painfully swollen lymph gland in his patient’s groin to the bacterial infection Yersinia pestis, the Black Death.

The diagnosis signalling the Australian arrival of the deadliest disease in human history, was made on a Friday.

By Wednesday, Mr Paine and his family had been spirited off to North Head Quarantine Station and their home in Ferry Lane at The Rocks drenched with fumigant.

While swift, the response was futile. Mr Paine recovered but within five weeks, there were 30 cases and by August, 300 known infections and 103 deaths among a population of 456,000.

Each time someone fell ill, their close contacts were forcibly isolated with whole areas of The Rocks, Millers Point, Woolloomooloo, Darling Harbour, Redfern and the city centre eventually shut down a street at a time.

Cleansing operations saw buildings in poor areas torched or demolished and numerous schools and businesses shuttered.

With a bounty placed on Rattus rattus by local authorities, tens of thousands of the flea-carrying rodents were trapped and exterminated by professional catchers and countless more delivered to a public incinerator in Bathurst Street at two pence apiece, according to archival records.

With ‘hysterical fear” rising and suspicions high infected rats were arriving via Hong Kong following a major epidemic there, Sydney’s Chinese residents were widely blamed for the plague’s spread.

There would be 10 major outbreaks in Australia between 1900 and 1925 as visiting ships delivered fresh infections from around the globe.

Officially, there were 535 deaths attributed to Y. pestus during the period. Sydney bore the brunt but it spread also to Townsville in Queensland’s north and multiple cases were documented in Melbourne, Adelaide and Fremantle.

For Emeritus Professor Peter Curson, the similarities between what took place more than 120 years ago and the current coronavirus pandemic are unmistakeable.

It convinced him to write a book about it: A Time of Terror: The Black Death in Sydney.

“Just as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of the Black Death saw tremendous conflicts between governments, public health bodies and the community,” the Macquarie University academic says.

“As the plague spread, hysteria, fear and panic reached a level never before seen.”

Sydneysiders who could afford to fled, with reports of train platforms packed with passengers fighting to get to the Blue Mountains.

As the panic set in, con merchants clambered from the woodwork too including the makers of a certain Vitadontio blood tonic who began advertising the “remedy” in The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Ordinary people had no confidence in the government’s ability to protect them and in among all of this, they searched for scapegoats,” Prof Curson says.

“It’s part of human nature to try to reduce that anxiety and fear by fixing on a visible enemy.”

The Chinese were the first target, he says. They were abused and assaulted in the street and their property was vandalised.

According to Australia’s only trained epidemiologist of the day, British-born John Ashburton Thompson, in his report to NSW parliament, Sydney’s Chinese numbered 4000 yet only contributed 10 fatalities.

They weren’t the only ones singled out, however.

“Syrians and Hindoos”, a common reference at the time to anyone from the Middle East, were also publicly accused of risking public health on the basis their “general habits were anything but desirable”, according to the Australian Lebanese Historical Society.

Many lessons can still be learned in terms of how communities respond to risk and infection,” Prof Curson believes.

“It’s important to remember people are afraid in these situations. They’ll believe rumours and misinformation, and look for someone to take out their frustration on.

“The challenge is to not only respond to the outbreak but to understand how ordinary people regard risk and how fear can come to dominate ordinary lives.

“I think we’ve seen many governments make that mistake in the past, whether that was 100 years ago or one year ago.”

Australian Associated Press

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