Improving public health the most useful legacy of 1918 influenza pandemic

PHOTO: New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner Nick Hurley laying a wreath at the Influenza Memorial at the Vaimoso Cemetery in remembrance of those who died

Story & Photos by Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – WEDNESDAY 07 2018: Rebuilding and improving health on lessons learnt from the 1918 influenza pandemic is perhaps the most useful legacy of those who lost their lives in that tragedy.

At todays’ commemoration of 100 years since the tragic event, both Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi and New Zealand’s Acting High Commissioner Nick Hurley referred to lessons learnt and the drive to improve health services in Samoa.

Hurley said the New Zealand Government’s effort to improve public health in Samoa, is considered as perhaps the most useful legacy of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

New health policies were implemented in the 1930’s which were carried out by Village Women’s Committee that became the backbone of the health system and greatly improved health conditions.

Hurley acknowledged the tragic loss of lives but said the unique Treaty of Friendship between the two countries, sum up the real reconciliation for such event, as evident in New Zealand contributing NZ$2millon dollars to the construction of the Samoa Nurse Community Centre at Moto’otua.

PHOTO: School children laying wreaths at the Influenza Memorial at the Vaimoso Cemetery in remembrance of those who died

He said the New Zealand Administration handling of the influenza was universally criticised leading the Government to set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate how the epidemic was introduced or whether it was caused by any negligence or default on the part of any persons in the New Zealand Government or Administration of Samoa.

The Commission met in May 1919 and concluded that a number of basic errors of judgement and poor communication had caused the unnecessary spread of the influenza on the part of Colonel Logan, the New Zealand Health, the British Government, Health Authority in Samoa, Ports Authority and the ship’s captain.

“The incompetence of the New Zealand Administration at the time, led Prime Minister Helen Clarke to make her national apology in 2002 for the injustice arising from the New Zealand Administration at the time,” said Hurley.

“With regret, the decision taken by the NZ authority in 1918 to allow the ship Talune carrying passengers with influenza to dock in Apia, clearly the system and decision making were ill-prepared to prevent the incursion, spread and containment of such a major disease,” Hurley quoted from Clarkes’ apology.

“From this sad event, we hope that this close partnership grows stronger and remain so for the next 100 years,” said Hurley.

Prime Minster Tuilaepa said today’s commemoration also marks Samoa’s journey of reflections on mistakes of the past that must never be allowed to be repeated.

A minutes silence in remembrance of those who died

The fateful docking of the New Zealand ship Talune at Apia harbour resulted in a tragedy that was bewildering in its suddenness and dreadful in its consequences of the 1918 influenza that swept the globe in what is still considered one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history.

“The reality was dark for a very small island country which was still relatively clean of contagious diseases and the Talune had dire consequences for our people then,” said Tuilaepa.

“It killed close to a quarter of our population in 1918-1919 possibly more as many families in the rural areas buried their dead’s that were so many daily, without worrying about the need to inform the authorities,” he said.

He said at the time of the tragedy, there was no laboratory to diagnose, detect or characterise the flu virus, and prevention treatments were limited, no vaccines to protect against the flu virus infection, or any medicine to assist the Samoan people during the outbreak.

The church ministers, chiefs and orators, men, women and children of Vaimoso village who were very much behind the celebration

“We must never leave space for the occurrence of any situations that will result in a loss of life, because out of every tragedy, emerges a new beginning which ultimately should make us more resilient and better prepared,” said Tuilaepa.

“We are in an era of scientific technological advances that will aid us to focus on preventive care as well as curative care,” he said.

There is an interactive network for global surveillance that will signal early warning of epidemics and pandemics globally.

“We have learnt to avoid disease hot spots, we take good note of preventative armour we can have, and exercise our sovereign rights to keep our borders safe, and secured from the scourge of diseases.

He said Government has now invested in getting the Samoan populous educated so that they are better prepared for the hazards of disease. Government is also engaged in plans for training all levels of health workers, community offices and the community.

He then emphasized the importance for doctors, nurses and health workers to show more commitment to their calling from God in serving the public.

“We see today the celebration of life and how we have emerged out of the darkness of our vulnerability. We should pause to remember those who are in unmarked burial grounds such as those that Vaimoso village have memorialised.”

Members of the Vaimoso Boys Brigade

He acknowledged the commitment by the Government of New Zealand to remember with the Samoan people a past, dark as it was shared by both countries.

“The ceremony today represents the goodwill between our two Governments and Vaimoso will be a flagship initiative for all the lives that were lost to the pandemic of 1918,” said Tuilaepa.

He acknowledged the New Zealand Government’s commitment to restoring the monument at Vaimoso as Samoa’s National Monument to honour the dead and to give them rightful recognition in the history of the two countries.

Today’s ceremony was conducted under the auspices of the National Council of Churches led by Chairman Reverend Kasiano Leaupepe and Secretary Reverend Ma’auga Motu.

Church Ministers serving in the village of Vaimoso Reverend Amosa Reupena of the Congregational Christian Church, Deacon Mikaele Fonoti of the Catholic Church and Reverend Auro Teve of the Methodist Church also took part in the service.

A moment of silence was observed, then the sound of the Last Post before the laying of wreaths.

A police bugler sounds the Last Post