Who would have thought at the start of 2020 that our lives would become so unrecognizable? It’s easy to look at photos of an empty George Street or an abandoned Opera House forecourt and think we are living in unprecedented times.
However, history buffs amongst us would know that Sydney is no stranger to pandemics. Along with multiple smallpox outbreaks in the 19th century and the global Spanish influenza crisis in 1918-1919, Sydney was also hit by bubonic plague in 1900, which arrived via shipping routes following an 1894 resurgence of the disease in Hong Kong.
Tucked amongst the pamphlets in the Australian Museum’s Rare Books collection is Prevention of Plague: Instructions to Householders, issued in March 1900 by the NSW Department of Public Health in response to the outbreak. Although only eight pages long, this pamphlet tells us about the government’s response to pandemics 120 years ago and helps us to identify a few similarities between this historical public health emergency and the one we’re facing now – and one significant difference.
1. The authorities initially didn’t know what caused it
Unlike novel coronavirus, bubonic plague had been around for thousands of years before the Sydney outbreak. By the turn of the last century, scientists and medical professionals had identified a clear link between bubonic plague and infected rats. Prevention of Plague; Instructions to Householders opens with the statement:
"Plague is present in Sydney. It has been introduced by diseased rats, and there is great danger of it spreading further."
However, at the time Prevention of Plague was published, scientists believed that the plague originated with the rats themselves. It wasn’t until several years later that the plague-causing Yersinia pestis bacteria was definitively linked with fleas who would infect the rats and in turn, go on to infect humans.
Similarly, theories abound on the internet as to the original source of COVID-19, with fingers being pointed at bats, wet markets and pangolins. Although it’s likely that the virus originated in bats the truth is that we still don’t know for certain and likely won’t for some time.
2. The link between good hygiene and disease eradication was crucial
The humble bar of soap has the power to remove virus and bacterial molecules from our hands. We are currently surrounded by reminders to practice good hygiene to keep ourselves and others safe from novel coronavirus. The push for clean hands is being spearheaded by government authorities: NSW Health has released a poster series that you may have seen on your rare outing from your home to conduct essential activities.
The importance of good hygiene was also pressed by the NSW Department of Public Health in the fight against the bubonic plague – although they didn’t fully understand the link between “fevers” and “filth”, they knew it was essential to stopping the spread:
“Still, it must be remembered that, although rats may begin an epidemic of plague in man, they are by no means the only carriers of the contagion. Plague is a fever: like other fevers, it is aided in its attacks by filthy surroundings, and probably its infection is fostered by filthy heaps of neglected and putrifying material, and filthy earth.”
3. The public were called upon to do their part in keeping the city safe
COVID-19 has caused sweeping changes to how we live. For most of us, our lives are unrecognisable compared to how they looked at the beginning of this year. While challenging, we understand that this is because social distancing has been the most effective tool for stopping the spread of the virus – and can only be successful if all of us work together to obey restrictions.
In 1900, the inhabitants of Sydney were also instructed by the authorities to do their part:
“Very great and special pains must therefore be taken by householders to thoroughly cleanse their houses internally, their years, their gutters, and their drains… Municipal authorities are seldom provided with large staffs, and nuisances [hygiene issues in public spaces] sometimes exist for long before they are detected and dealt with. Every ratepayer should make a point, therefore, of reporting every nuisance which he observes in his district to the Council Clerk...”
The pamphlet also includes “Directions for Special Cleansing and Disinfecting” which included the instruction that:
“All makeshift buildings and sheds in bad repair must be pulled down and removed before the premises can be considered clean.”
4. Pets didn’t appear to transmit the disease
While there’s been a lot of panic and confusion about whether COVID-19 can be transmitted from pets to humans, the risk of the virus spreading this way appears to be extremely low.
This also seemed to be the case for the 1900 plague outbreak, as authorities encouraged the public to enlist their dogs in their efforts to kill any rats that they discovered on the premises:
“Use dogs too ; dogs very rarely indeed have suffered from plague.”
5. …They killed a lot of rats
This leads us to the significant difference between the current pandemic and the Sydney’s plague outbreak. While for most of us the fight against COVID-19 has so far consisted mainly of washing our hands and staying at home, Sydney-siders in 1900 were implored by the government to kill thousands upon thousands of rats:
“Great efforts must therefore be at once made by Municipal Councils and by individual householders to kill all rats. This war must be persistently and steadily carried on. It must extend to every neighbourhood, as well as to those where the rats are known to be infected, for the following reason:-As soon as rats find they are dying in numbers, or are being trapped and killed, in any place they inhabit, they leave that place and go to some other. If there are already rats at the latter place, these become infected by the immigrants, then disperse in their turn, thus carrying the disease still further. All rats, therefore, must be exterminated as far as possible, and the attack upon them should be simultaneous in the healthy and infected neighbourhoods.”
The pamphlet then goes on to provide a series of “hints” for eliminating rats, which it advises “should be carefully read.”
Although the total number of rats killed during the plague outbreak is uncertain, we know that it was somewhere in the tens of thousands - estimates range from 44,000 by the NSW State Archives and Records, to 108,000 by the National Museum of Australia.
6. The public health response to the crisis saved countless lives
There’s one final similarity between the plague outbreak and our current situation. The coordinated response to the plague by public health authorities over eight months in 1900 meant that only 303 cases of infection were reported, and 103 deaths.
This number is remarkably low compared to other bubonic plague outbreaks: the Black Death plague pandemic of the 14th century is estimated to have killed around a quarter of the world’s population, and even the 1894 Hong Kong outbreak, where the Sydney plague likely originated from, is said to have killed over 2000 people.
We have seen a comparable result in our rate of COVID-19 infections here in Australia compared to other countries – at time of writing, the total number of cases in Australia has been 6,875, compared to over 3.5 million cases worldwide.
While life in the current crisis may sometimes feel insurmountable, history shows us that people have faced and survived similar challenges before. When everything becomes overwhelming, it can be helpful to take some time to look back at the past and be reminded that no matter what happens, no pandemic lasts forever – and at least this time, we don’t have to deal with rats!