Learning from the past was a theme in Sue Gordon’s Anzac Day address in Tapanui on Sunday.
The former Blue Mountain College head girl (1981) was appointed Ministry of Health Covid-19 response deputy chief executive in July last year.
She spoke to the 400-strong crowd at the service, which included Tapanui’s sole surviving World War 2 veteran Bill Roulston.
Mrs Gordon said there was one story of World War 1 that did not receive much attention but had a significant effect on individuals and communities across New Zealand.
“It is the story of the Spanish or Black Flu pandemic of 1918-19,” Mrs Gordon said.
“This epidemic was a major killer.
“Best estimates put the death toll from this pandemic at about 50 million worldwide nearly three times that of the soldiers who died in World War 1.
The disease was brought back to New Zealand by returning troops and dignitaries.
“Once this pandemic took hold, we lost 9000 New Zealanders in six weeks.”
It particularly affected people aged 20 to 45.
“So many of our returning soldiers and their families were doubly impacted by this disease.”
While it was a dark time in the nation’s history, much had been learned from the way the pandemic was dealt with due to the research completed by University of Canterbury professor Geoffrey Rice.
“The Ministry of Health’s pandemic plan acknowledged the learning that has come from his extensive research and were part of the ministry response to Covid-19,” Mrs Gordon said.
“For me, remembering and ensuring we are learning from these critical events in our history embody the spirit of Anzac.”
In October 1918, as the troop ships arrived, New Zealand officials decided quarantine was not necessary.
However, by November 1, Auckland was shut down by widespread illness.
People were told to take care of themselves.
“There were no or limited social services as all public services were struck down with staff falling ill.”
A week later, all public gatherings in Auckland were banned and schools were closed.
The Ministry of Health banned issuing death statistics, fearing they would create more harm, but rumour and speculation took over.
The flu spread as soldiers returned home.
Strong local leadership made a difference as to how badly communities were affected, Mrs Gordon said.
“Wellington was slow to lock down and suffered for it.
“Canterbury and Otago had strong local leadership, and this helped to reduce the impact of the epidemic.”
Recalling what happened last year and the rapid decisions that were made, it was possible to see how the lessons from the past had been learned, she said.
“Our political leaders asked for, and listened to, the public health advice they received.”
Courageous decisions had been made, including closing the borders, asking people to stay at home and setting up quarantine facilities.
“We limited the number of cases in New Zealand to 2600; over 55% of those have been contained in quarantine facilities.”
Another lesson from 1918 was the importance of communicating honestly and often, Mrs Gordon said.
“The daily stand-up where the Prime Minister and the director-general of health shared what was happening and what New Zealanders needed to do has been key to our success.”
The combined work of public servants, especially health workers, had played a big part in stopping the spread of Covid-19.
“They have put themselves in the front line to keep New Zealanders safe. There is a amazing spirit of service.”
She said that commitment to service was a hallmark of the response; there were more than 4000 workers in the quarantine managed facilities.
“They are modern day heroes keeping us safe.”
New Zealand Defence Force staff had also played their part, more than 1200 personnel involved in the Covid-19 response.
“Their professionalism and discipline throughout this response reminds us again of the significant ongoing contribution our defence force makes to New Zealand.”
Mrs Gordon’s final comment regarded the Anzac spirit, which she said continued to shape every New Zealander.
“[It is] the collective sense of community that embodies our Kiwi spirit.
“It is this spirit that meant as the team of five million we have kept each other safe.”
When she thought of Anzac Day, she thought of those who had gone before and how they shaped the actions of future generations.
“Caring for each other and kindness are simple values that have held us in great stead through both wars and pandemics,” she said.
“We also know from the lessons of a century ago that from sacrifice comes great hope, and it is this hope that we take into 2021 and beyond.”