What can we learn from the Pneumonic Plague of 1918-1919?
I recently spoke to Dr Peter Hobbins Honorary Associate, Department of History; School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, at the University of Sydney who is an expert on the Pneumonic Plague (The Spanish Flu) of 1918-1919. He had some interesting comments:
He avoids calling it the “Spanish Flu” because it unfairly points the blame at one nation, a principle that doesn’t seem to worry some other countries with COVID-19.
The pandemic did not hit Australia till 1919 because travel was by ship and there was a controlled system for quarantining people.
I asked him if there were some things he wished we had measured at the time to help us understand the situation better now. He noted that recording was done by hand and the process differed by area and that if the person doing the recording got sick then it was likely to stop. He felt that the recording of information in the indigenous community was particularly poor and it is likely that the mortality rate was much higher, possibly up to 10% of those infected.
At the time the Federal Government had practically nothing to do with health care. There was a much stronger reliance on the local community and charitable activities.
There weren’t many cars in Australia at that time but some owners volunteered to help with transport, particularly taking health care workers to patients.
A lot of ambulances at the time were horse drawn. There was one case that helped motivate authorities to move to motorised ambulances. One horse had learnt to untie his reins and so when the officers came out of a house having looked at a patient, the horse had walked home taking the ambulance with him.
The government issued a directive that people had to wear masks on public transport. One person was fined when they removed their mask to have a cigarette. That shows a certain determination to get sick.
There were some rules from government about not allowing meetings of a large number of people. This included church meetings. At that time the great majority of Australians associated with one religion or another.
The dead had to be buried quickly so there was a loss of opportunity to have a fuller mourning process.
What impacts did plagues have on Australian railways?
Dr Peter Hobbins also noted that the development and transport of goods and people (including railway staff) was seen with concern during the 1919 Pneumonic Plague.
Railway historian Stuart Sharpe (who we have quoted in past newsletters), has noted a number of impacts that railways had:
The high level of interest in and support for the rural economy was helped by the record wheat crop in 1915/16, the whole of the crop being purchased by the British Government. Premier Holman (Premier of New South Wales from 1913 to 1920) told the public that it was his Government’s railway policy that enabled the expansion of land. Unfortunately, the New South Wales Railways had tremendous difficulty moving the crop because there was a shortage of international shipping, and emergency storage had to be arranged at several sites on the New South Wales railway system. This plan induced a mice plague in 1916, which continued in 1917.
In 1919 there were no ceremonies for the opening of the Picton to Mittagong deviation nor the section of North Coast line between Kempsey and Macksville, because of the prevalence of the influenza epidemic.
Above is an extract from Dr Sharp’s seminal work on the architecture of railway stations on the Pneumonic Plague and printed it later in the newsletter. It includes how the railways prosecuted people, sprayed passengers with zinc sulphate (administered in an inhalation chamber), interstate travel was subject to a permit and only the major stations could administer them.
Can Literature show us something about coping with a pandemic
I put a post on LinkedIn as follows:
“I have long thought that transport planners should read and discuss literature because it helps us understand people not just measure the trips we make. Albert Camus wrote the novel The Plague that was published in 1947. One of the quotes I thought was very good when I read it a year ago but is so relevant now to people who belligerently state opinions without any short or long term understanding was: "The most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorises itself to kill".
It was very encouraging to receive a comment from Richard Isled
“Unfortunately it doesn't look like there will be an AITPM conference this year, but I have to admit I am always surprised how well read the people I meet there are; I have not read "The Plague" but "The Stranger" is on my list to read. I recently read Seneca's "The Letters from a Stoic", which has turned out to feel quite relevant to the whole situation the world finds itself in. I agree that "knowing people" (if one can know other people) not just from the numbers is a critical part of transport planning, because only through some semblance of "knowing the other" can help you appeal and work together with those that oppose your own preconceived ideas, biases and notions. Our notions of the nature of travel are always wrong, and like Socrates would say, the difference is whether one is ignorant of that fact or not.
An engineer also replied with a comment saying, in part “Camus might be a bit heavy going for the current situation we all find ourselves in though!”. I don’t find Camus easy (perhaps not helped by being an engineer??) but I think we have to include some effort in digging deeply into something. Looking beyond the most common ideas is part of the coverage of COVID-19 that we have later in the newsletter.
Some of the other quotes I found interesting in Camus’ The Plague
When anything that is well researched can now be called “fake news” by some: “But there always comes a time in history when a person who dares to say that 2 + 2 makes four is punished by death”.
We have been through a time when individual opinions are shouted at people with no understanding of other people and no concern but one’s own. There is a stronger feeling of community now in many (but not all) areas: “There were no longer any individual destinies, but a collective history that was the plague, and feelings shared by all”.
Coronavirus and changes to the freight industry
Most of the talk about the Coronavirus has been about the impacts on personal travel. But what about freight? Measures to help protect truckies and their industry are now being considered.
Whether you get your food or other needs from a shop or get it home delivered, you are relying on the freight industry. Measures are now being considered as to how to protect this industry, especially the drivers, from the Coronavirus epidemic.
In the UK they have suspended all drivers tests for three months to avoid personal interaction.
The Australian trucking association wants an increase in the asset write-off, a 12 month guarantee for equipment loan repayments and setting the road user charge to zero.
Removing tolls on the soon to be opened new motorway in Sydney is also being requested.
There is also a push to allow trucks to deliver to loading bays throughout the night.
World-first study tests distraction and fatigue in drivers
A vehicle crash is rarely due to just one factor. Australian research has highlighted the combined impact of distraction and fatigue in truck drivers and what the industry is doing about it.
Using Australia’s first Truck Simulator, Monash University researchers conducted tests on 74 truck drivers under different conditions.
The drivers were sleep deprived and then intentionally distracted during driver simulation for two-hours. Researchers recorded 29 crashes in the simulator, with 72% in fatigue condition and 28% of the crashes while drivers were alert. Drivers were twice as likely to crash when fatigued, but 11 times more likely to crash when fatigue and distraction were both present.
Researchers were also able to accurately detect a driver’s level of fatigue while the driver’s eyes were still open, in real-time, and before a safety critical event such as a micro sleep occurs.
140 countries pledged to eliminate traffic deaths - The U.S. did not.
Each year 1.3 million people die around the world as a result of road accidents that’s 3,700 per day and the number of serious injuries is much higher. Most world leaders are combining efforts to stop this happening.
Transportation leaders from 140 countries have agreed on an ambitious global target to completely eliminate traffic deaths.
This Stockholm Declaration, aims to reduce traffic fatalities by at least 50 percent over the next ten years, with the goal of eradicating roadway deaths and serious injuries by 2050.
All the countries in attendance endorsed the declaration except the U.S.
In a statement the US dissociated themselves from certain paragraphs that they say “muddle our focus and detract attention from data driven scientific policies and programs that have successfully reduced fatalities on roadways”.
The U.S.’s per-capita road fatality rate is higher than any other member of the OECD and US pedestrian deaths are currently the highest since 1988.
Automated systems need stronger safeguards to keep drivers focussed on the road
New technologies such as autonomous vehicles have been promoted as an all-or-nothing solution.
Authorities are now recognising the need for half way measures.
Investigations have shown that a Tesla driver who died two years ago, was playing a video game at the time of the crash while the car was being driven semi-autonomously using Tesla's Autopilot software.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has issued a set of research-based safety recommendations when using partially automated driving systems. The guidelines emphasise how to keep drivers focused on the road even as the vehicle does more of the work.
They suggest systems that progressively give a visual reminder, an audio or physical alert, pulse braking or if the driver continues not to respond put the hazard lights on and bring the car to a stop.