Influenza, polio, Covid-19: what a post-pandemic NZ could look like

Logan Church

Covid-19 is not the first pandemic New Zealand’s fought with lockdowns, quarantine, and vaccinations, and experts say it won’t be our last. 

About 9000 Kiwis died after soldiers returning from WW1 brought the disease home with them.

Helen Genevieve-Stringer was a heartbroken 12-year-old after her uncle Derek’s wedding was cancelled. 

Instead, her father had hired a truck and was loading it with tents and supplies. Helen, and her brother and sisters, piled into the back, and their mother and father drove them north. 

They were fleeing Auckland, where the Government had announced a city-wide lockdown. 

Hospitals were filling up, the health system buckling under increasing pressure. A deadly virus was spreading, and thousands were dying. 

Only essential workers were allowed to be out and about. The police were out in force maintaining order. 

People were forced to stay home, only able to leave for essential supplies. 

In the the late 1940s, polio was sweeping through the nation.

It was the late 1940s, and polio was sweeping through the nation. 

Helen and her family were fleeing north after the Government ordered children to leave the city, as children were seemingly most at risk from the disease. 

“The whole of Auckland at any rate, was shut down, and we had to get out - we were not allowed to stay in Auckland.” 

1News interviewed Helen, now 85 years old, as the Delta variant entered New Zealand and the country was plunged once again into lockdown. 

Helen Genevieve-Stringer.

She recalled thinking “here we go again” when Covid-19 first arrived in early 2020. 

During those early polio days, Helen lived with her family on her uncle’s land in Marakau. 

“We lived in tents and dad worked for Fisher & Paykel in those days,” she recalled. 

“There was a train that used to come up and he would come up every Friday with food... but in the meantime we lived on eels and rabbits, and at the age of 12 I learnt how to shoot with a big gun.” 

They spent their days completing school lessons, which were mailed out by the Government to children who had to leave their homes. 

“The correspondence school in Wellington mailed a weekly package of work to do. I thrived on that because there were no other children around to talk to,” she said.  

“We weren't too aware of the danger and the sickness.” 

Past pandemics and epidemics resulted in changes to many parts of society, from the introduction of new health legislation after the 1918 influenza pandemic, to new social welfare programmes. 

Hopefully, we'll won't end up in the same cycle again, where people forget, Government's change, priorities change, and that funding disappears again, and then we repeat the same mistakes

—  Dr Heather Battles, Anthropologist

1NEWS interviewed several anthropologists, who study how society changes and adapts, about how New Zealand changed following past pandemics, and what a future after Covid-19 could look like. 

Dr Helen Battles, of the University of Auckland, said New Zealand’s Covid-19 response closely mirrored how it dealt with past pandemics. 

“New Zealand tends to go for the traditional public health measures just like most societies, so the tried-and-true isolation of the sick quarantine of people who might be infected - just like with the old days of smallpox and other diseases where they quarantined ships,” she said. 

"We've seen the MIQ systems, we've seen isolation and quarantine, we've seen the same things like with polio, where are they close schools to prevent transmission, where children were doing remote schooling for long periods of time, closures of public health, public places, like theatres, restaurants, anywhere where people together - and then as soon as possible when there was a vaccine available, rolling that out and making sure that there was immunisation so that things could be under control a lot faster.” 

But she said that would often lead to increasing poverty, with many people losing work, or forced to stay home. 

“Their breadwinner can't go to work and bring in the money for the family to feed themselves,” she said. 

Anne Overton, community relationship manager at the Presbyterian Support Northern foodbank.

This was something New Zealand was already seeing during Covid-19, with record numbers of people turning to food banks to put kai on the table. 

In September, 1News revealed almost a quarter of Pasifika people were receiving some form of Government support. 

New social programmes would have to be introduced, she said. 

“That's a really common theme and pandemic because it reveals the vulnerabilities that already exist that maybe are normally ignored or not paid as much attention to. 

“I think what Covid-19 has really shown is the vulnerabilities that exist because of inequities in health and access to health care, and just living conditions, socio economic conditions. If there's more investment in housing, and other social support, that can go a long way to preventing other epidemics.” 

Investment in health infrastructure would also likely be on the horizon, said Battles. 

The Government had already invested $36m in a new infectious diseases research platform 

“Hopefully, we'll won't end up in the same cycle again, where people forget, Government's change, priorities change, and that funding disappears again, and then we repeat the same mistakes,” she said. 

“I'm hoping that that lasts.” 

She also predicted that public health measures, such as mask wearing, might be here to stay for some time. 

“People might keep some of those public health measures in place like mask wearing or not going to work. We've all gone to work or school when we're sick and we think, ‘you know, it’s just got a cold’, but we really shouldn't.  

“So hopefully, there'll be more attention to just wellness and being responsible to others and protecting each others, and social support for companies.” 

Digital communication would increase, she said, giving the example of “hybrid” conferences, where some people would participate virtually. 

Online education, something disability advocates had been advocating for years, were also likely to not only stay, but keep improving. 

Meanwhile, Auckland University anthropologist Susanna Trnka described this point in history as a “watershed moment”. 

“Particularly if you talk to young people, they're very interested in what happens in five years, in 10 years, will I have a job? What will New Zealand look like, what will New Zealand's place in global relations look like? I think these are really important questions.” 

She said some of the questions included figuring out who we were as a nation. She said this question was particularly prevalent around issues with border closures, and an MIQ system that effectively blocked New Zealand citizens from coming home. 

“I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but it's an interesting stance to take," she said. 

“I think we've done a very dramatic thing in terms of shutting the borders... now how that’s going to pan out for us is the fascinating set of questions...but we're obviously going to have to look back and rethink that strategy and think about what we gained and what we lost in doing that. 

“Who do we include, who's a citizen, who's not, what borders are closed, who gets to stay in, who gets excluded... I think those issues are quite pressing issues for us to deal with.” 

She referred to recent tensions in Melbourne, where violence broke out after construction workers rejected vaccine mandates from the state Government. 

Other states had also seen large scale, and sometimes violent, anti-lockdown protests. 

"We see how it's manifesting itself in Melbourne ... and that's not the way many of us want it to manifest here,” she said. 

“We have whole new cohort of young people who are growing up right now in the middle of this pandemic in their formative years, who are thinking about these questions because they can't escape them.” 

Trnka said one of the legacies of Covid-19 would be increased awareness about public health, and what role the Government had in that. 

“Everybody is now a lay-person epidemiologist. We're talking about our R factors, how many ICU beds do we have. I think we will have much more robust conversations, particularly about the role of Government and what to expect from a Government.” 

Battles said one thing was incredibly obvious going forward, this was likely not the last pandemic or epidemic we would have to deal with in our lifetimes. 

“One of the things we talk about in my classes with my students is that we're in an age of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases - so these diseases are going to keep coming,” she said. 

“I hope in five or 10 years' time, we haven't forgotten the lessons of this pandemic.”