Plague in 1900 in Sydney

2020, 1919, 1900 … what do these years have in common?

2020 doesn’t bear writing about, what with fires, Covid-19 and now recession. And we keep hearing comparisons with the worldwide disaster of Spanish flu in 1919.

But the history of plague in Sydney is less well known. That’s plain old bubonic plague, the kind they had in London in the 1600s. Turning up here and there over the decades, it was carried from rats to fleas to humans. Sydney’s first encounter was in January 1900.

The rats came by sea. In Sydney the main dockyards were at Darling Harbour, and that’s where the plague took hold, among dock workers, local traders and carriers, and residents in crowded housing nearby.

The first sign was not a sick person, but an increase in the number of dead rats. It had never occurred to me that rats were also victims of the disease. Soon there were big campaigns to kill rats. The official number killed in Sydney that year, 108,308, looks a bit too precise to be believable. It could be an under-estimate.

Cover of Peter Curson & Kevin McCracken‘s book

Rat catchers proudly photographed great piles of rotting rodents. When Leichhardt Council Chambers was announced as the a local collection depot, the town clerk was besieged by people bearing dead rats and demanding the “captitation” fee of sixpence. The depot was actually in Canterbury Road. Some inner city districts were barricaded off until rat eradication and cleaning could be completed. Huge barge-loads of dead rats, contaminated material and other rubbish were towed out to sea, and some unsavoury items turned up on Bondi Beach. The Bulletin commented,

Break, break, break/ At the foot of thy crags, O Sea.

But the pungent smell of the cat that is dead/ Will ever come back to me.”

The disease spread rapidly, with the inner suburbs hardest hit. The Rocks and Chinatown were badly affected, as were Alexandria, Surry Hills, Botany, Waterloo and Woolloomooloo. City boarding houses, crowded cottages and cheap hotels were also at risk. Plague seldom penetrated the graceful streets of Mosman, Vaucluse or Strathfield. Manly was the only north shore address to be affected.

When a case was suspected, public health officials inspected the patient and the premises. Confirmed cases were quarantined – transported by launch to Quarantine Station at North Head. Close contacts were also taken to Quarantine Station where there was separate accommodation for contacts, up the hill from the hospital. People from small households usually complied with these arrangements, but when authorities insisted on quarantining 80 people from one hotel, there was violent resistance. Most contacts spent only a couple of weeks at North Head, but a few were there for months.

In all, there were 303 cases, of whom 103 died. Young men, at high risk because of their jobs near the wharves, were the largest group affected.

Restricting deaths to 103 represents a triumph for the authorities, but the figures mask untold tragedies. A terminally ill 3-year-old was snatched from his mother’s arms and taken to die alone at the Quarantine Station. Many families lost their sole breadwinner.

The city had much to learn about the need for decent sanitation, but in the meantime snake oil salesmen had a grand time promoting various preventive substances and cures. With its centuries-old name, The Black Death, the plague inspired terror, misinformation, and the desire to find someone to blame. The rumour mill went wild, with false claims that the Chinese community was the source of the infection, or that rich families were bribing officials not to identify them as plague victims. There was little clarity about which level of government was responsible for what. No one knew what the future might hold. Plague was not the only threat to health: doctors could offer little to combat scarlet fever, measles or flu.

But when winter 1900 turned to spring, the plague had run its course. Health experts warned that there would certainly be another epidemic one day, but most residents of Sydney just sighed with relief.

PENELOPE NELSON

More information: Curson, P. & McCracken, K., Plague in Sydney, UNSW Press

Random Thoughts on News and Weather

‘Before all this’, as we’ve been saying in our house for several months, I used to check online news every morning. During Australia’s bushfire season 2019-20, I’d start with ABC and Sydney Morning Herald, and, depending on the news, message family and friends in NSW to see how they were coping.  Canadian news – CBC and the Toronto Star – was next on my list, and news of the virus was gradually making headlines. 

By February, with the pandemic threatening, and my planned May flight to Sydney in question, I got a bit obsessive around online news, most of which was frighteningly bad.  Opinion pieces and social media were the worst, and I had to stop reading them. Then on March 16 Canada went into lockdown, and I spent the first two weeks wondering if I had the virus, having been on crowded buses and in a busy restaurant just days earlier.

Early in ‘all this’, I was concerned about Australia’s seemingly slow start to enforce restrictions, while Canada appeared to be dealing with the crisis relatively effectively, with a fairly sane and sensible prime minister.  Sadly, that situation was soon reversed, and Toronto is still in Stage 2 of a three-stage plan to reopening, averaging about 30 new cases daily. 

Obviously, I’m not on holiday at Manly this year.

Like many regular swimmers, I despaired of finding a substitute when Toronto’s indoor pools closed. Jogging kept me fit, but offered none of the joys of water, as Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Roger Deakin’s Waterlogged eloquently describe.  Toronto is on the shores of Lake Ontario, the 13th largest lake in the world, but in March, the water is close to freezing. At the end of May, after a lot of online research about size and thickness, I ordered a heavy-weight wetsuit on Amazon.  By then, water at Toronto beaches was about 10 C.  Swimming in a 5mm wetsuit is a challenge  – one swimmer on my Facebook swim group aptly calls his a sausage suit.  It kept me warm but was not a tight fit and bulged in strange places. It seems that I should have paid twice as much for a suit designed for swimming, with thinner material on the arms and legs. The plan is to buy one now that stores are open, so that I can have a longer open water swimming season this year.

Wearing the thick wetsuit in the lake

It’s possible that most Australians reading this will not know anyone who caught the virus. I personally know of only a few. Two of my UK colleagues at Emerald Publishing were quite ill in April, as well as two young Toronto women, friends of my son and daughter-in-law, and one university colleague.  

My generation tended to self-isolate, and retired University of Toronto faculty have stayed in touch through weekly Zoom ‘coffee times’ and regular online presentations replacing the monthly in-person talks.  Weekly online meetings of a group called Oasis (a secular community, see  <torontooasis.org>)  also nurture my mind and spirit.  Cyclists have benefitted, with Toronto creating new cycle lanes throughout the city, and closing the major lakeshore highway to cars every weekend.  The so-called ‘new normal’ might not be as bad as it seems.

HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ

Did someone say “Totally over?”

On 10 May, just 7 weeks into Sydney’s lockdown, I overheard a good-looking young woman talking on her mobile phone at the pedestrian crossing. I came home, repeated her remark to Michael, and sat down to write the following piece of doggerel.

“I’m totally over Covid!”

Said the pretty girl into her phone.

I came home and told my beloved,

Who said, “She isn’t alone.”

At the risk of becoming a moaner,

I’m totally over corona.

I’m feeling just like the phoner

Who certainly isn’t a loner,

Becoming bovine or bovid –

We’re

totally

over

Covid!

At that time, we were only supposed to leave the house for a few defined purposes. We couldn’t eat in restaurants, ask friends to visit, or get in hugging distance of anyone.

Our wings were clipped, no doubt about it.

But 17 weeks on, my rhyme looks decidedly petulant.

17 weeks on, petulance just won’t do.

So I’ll try to see it more positively.

I’d rather live in a country with a death rate of 4 deaths from COVID-19 corona virus per million of population, than one with more than 400 deaths per million.

I’d rather live in a country where decision makers listen to the health experts and base their decisions on evidence, than one where fear and egotism hold sway.

I’d rather live in a country with a safety net for most of the people who lose jobs.

I’d rather put up with a few restrictions than run the risk of a terrifying death.

I know there will be moments when I’m as petulant as the woman on the phone, and totally over the whole thing. Patience is not one of my virtues. I don’t always handle confusion and uncertainty well. Who does?

Dark thoughts in the night are inevitable.

I didn’t like cancelling overseas travel. I do worry about my family members in the US. There are plenty of minor irritations, and occasional dark moods.

But “totally over”? If we’re nearer the start than the finish, we need more resilence than that.

PENELOPE NELSON

NAUGHTY WEEKEND

We have a small house in an insignificant little town on the south coast. So insignificant that when it appears in the news (because of bushfires or the rapacity of property developers), it is often referred to as a “hamlet.” The only hamlet in the country as far as I can tell.

Since the end of March, we hadn’t visited it although we had left ourselves with a list of unfinished work to do. The COVID19 regulations at that stage made it quite clear that travelling to the country for any reason other than urgent care for oneself or a close relative was forbidden. Specific mention was made of not going to a house that was not one’s principal place of residence. It was assumed that any such travel must be for a holiday, something that was supposed to occur only in one’s home or on its balcony.

Reading the latest iteration of the regulations appeared to show that travel between two houses that were our own property had acquired legitimacy since the earlier versions. So, equipped with the most recent council rates notice as proof of ownership and a copy of the regulations with the relevant paragraph highlit in fluorescent green, we set off, prepared to argue the case with the police when they pulled us up to enquire whether or not we were on lawful business.

No-one did stop us. We got down there and worked quite hard for a few days. Of course we went for walks on the local beaches and through the bush to see how much recovery there had been after the bushfires which had come close to destroying our hamlet entirely. P. even spent half an hour in the water, immersed in socially appropriate isolation from friends from the house two doors up our street.

Appropriate isolation

It made us think a bit about what a holiday is. We had a holiday in the sense we were doing something we wouldn’t otherwise have done and not done things we would otherwise have done. Prohibiting holidays seems to rule out an important therapeutic practice, even though their safety or efficacy in treating coronavirus infection hasn’t been established by randomised double blind controlled clinical trials. We’d put our hands up for such a study provided we could be assured that we wouldn’t be in the placebo group.

G.

The Bellybutton of a COVID Reality

by Jill Sutton

  1. Taking Time

Sometimes I just roll on a pretend ball of pastry

and scrape it off the back of my hands and

sometimes I run fingers up and down

between each other like guests at a good

dinner party and sometimes I play this is the

church and here are the people this is the

(something I’ve forgotten) and here is the

steeple and sometimes I slide the soapiness

down around each one of my ten fingers as I

cherish my beloveds one at a time and

sometimes I just make the soap bubbles burst

like a naughty child with a balloon.

Now that it’s fine to take time.

Hands by Federico Barocci
(16th century)

2. My window says

Look, I’ve framed it

Edited it down to this tidy parcel!

Rest with these red clematis leaves

The Buddha from your last house,

And the lattice fence.

I stay deaf to such stillness,

Complaining about a story

With no denouement.

3. Creatureliness

Two ducks,

Living on our pond without owning it,

Glide to the edge

To make space for dogs.

Splashing in,

They’re big, canine and careless.

Out of their depth,

Paddle now fierce,

They hold heads high and proud

To owners’ raucous applause.

When it’s over

Lonely park benches,

Elegant metal curving,

Hold this place as a font,

A quiet earthen bowl

For wetness

As we head for home.

4. Gratitude

Like pegs

Your phone calls

Pin me in the sunshine

Of your presence.

5. Majura poets connecting the dots

Breathless on the and she lay

Knocked back each time

By the poets of Majura.

Their waves,

High pounding thought,

Releasing as the virus

Becomes an Easter tide.

6. Living in place

Struggling to stay still,

And jealous of the European spring,

It comes to me:

Autumn can be a good listener.

7. Sketching

Black on white

Monastic in its shapeliness

Power in the line

Drawing the eye

To the bellybutton

Of reality.

— JILL SUTTON

ANXIETY CHAMPIONSHIPS

It has been a year of anxiety, but I could enter the championships. Today’s news was hidden in small type on page 8 of our newspaper. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded. “What’s the use of being married to an astronomer? There’s a whopping great asteroid heading towards the earth, and tomorrow’s the day.”

“Well, it’s not actually…”

“Not worth mentioning to amateurs?” I interrupted. I waved the article. A ruddy great asteroid, with a name like a phone number, (52768) 1998 OR2, was just one day away.

The astronomer was unmoved. He, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab and a few other experts, believe it will miss us by a fair margin. To be on the safe side, we should wear a mask.

Am I reassured? Not really. Just to list a few recent topics of concern: Dying gasping of Covid-19. The low recovery rate of patients on respirators. Total strangers, decades my junior, calculating my Quality Years of Remaining Life. The shortage of mature age flu vaccine. The possible side effects from the vaccine when you do get it.

Terrible medical news in the international press. The uptick in heart attack deaths in Brooklyn and Queens (probably virus-related). Hypoxy, a term of pure horror.

2020 anxiety portrait

No end of things to fret about. Decision fatigue. Greyzone coercion. The international information contest.

“Just going down to check the post,” I say. The postie arrives just as I open the door, so I congratulate him on our mutual second sight. He has even better news for me. “We’re both so good-looking,” he says, “that neither of us can possibly catch Covid.”

Just for now, I haven’t a worry in the world.

–PENELOPE NELSON

Life Since the Ides of March

THINGS I’VE LEARNED AND UNLEARNED….

  • Being an introvert has some advantages.
  • Jogging can replace swimming for endorphins, but not for the pure pleasure of water.
  • If you bake a lot of cakes, you feel compelled to eat them.
  • Making yogurt in a slow cooker is effortless, magic, and cheap.
  • Some people are kinder and friendlier to each other now, some people are not.
  • Twitter brings out the best and the worst in humans – but always the best in dogs and cats.
  • Everyone out on the street seems to have a dog – who knew? Where were they hiding them before now?
  • Twitter posts can be depressing.
  • It’s easy to zone out of Zoom meetings, and you can have snacks and washroom breaks unobserved.
  • I still don’t know what TikTok is, and I really don’t care.
  • “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!” Our “fringed pool” has stagnant water, needs to be drained, but.
  • Indoor plants grow faster when I water them regularly.
  • Routine events like garbage pickup and mail delivery are strangely reassuring.
  • And so to bed.

— HELEN JEFFERSON LENSKYJ

COVID-19 BAFFLES KELPIE SAM

COVID-19 is very confusing for some dogs in Sydney and my pooch Sam is one of them. Sam, a pure-bred black and tan Kelpie, was born on a sheep station in the Snowy Mountains six years ago, and when I first saw her, at the age of eight weeks, she and her five siblings were alreading mustering recently born ducklings into jam tins that had dropped into their enclosure.

By the time she was six months old she had all but mastered the art of mustering sheep — but she was suddenly whipped off to the urban surrounds of Darling Point, whre there have been very few sheep for more than 150 years. Most evenings for the past five years, I’ve taken Sam to Yarranabbe Park, a stretch of parkland that skirts Rushcutters Bay on the south shore of Sydney Harbour, for her second big run of the day. She loves the park, partly because she sees a few of her doggy friends but mainly because each day a steady, if small, stream of humans walked along the harbourside pathway.

A couple of years ago when a bout of heart maintnance slowed me down for a few months, Sam worked out how to keep herself active and amused. She would pick up her tennis ball, lope over to the most likely looking perambulator and drop the ball at their feet. She would then back away about five metres and fix them with the Kelpie stare – the classic sheepdog pose of arse up, head down and one paw tucked to her chest. It worked about 70% of the time and her ball would be thrown. The sucker would then discover that if you throw a ball once for a Kelpie, you are expected to keep doing it time and time again. And it is not easy to wear out a Kelpie.

But on March 16 Sam’s world was wrecked by the bloody COVID-19 virus. That was the day Gladys the Cruel started to shut down New South Wales. At first we were told to keep a distance from each other, but then Our Glad sooled the coppers onto us and said we couldn’t leave home without a reasonable excuse, and worst of all, she shut the gyms.

Shutting the gyms in a city of five million people made the parks a nightmare. Yarranabbe Park went from seeing 30 to 40 walkers each afternoon to seeing thousands. Great muscle-bound lumps of sweaty and puffy humanity were packed shoulder to shoulder on the paths, and the grass was covered with perosnal trainers and their victims attempting to do push-ups or master the plank. Sam was totally confused. She quickly discovered these new people were too busy to notice a dog. Those who stopped when confronted by the classic sheepdog pose paid no attention to the tennis ball at their feet. They thought she was about to attack them and rip out their sweaty throats.

They grabbed their mobiles phones and rang the cops.

We moved to another park well away from the harbour – but now the personal trainers have discovered it too.

At the end of March, Sam and I slipped down to the Snowy Mountains to do a bit of trout fishing — but the local coppers ordered us home. Fishing, even on a totally isolated river, is not a Gladys-sanctioned activity.

Sam is now baffled.

  • DDMCN

DECISION FATIGUE – AN APRIL WALK

I was out of home for April. Renovation. A plan made late last year. Looking back, who could have envisioned the novel beast on the horizon?

Thought it was strategic to move out close to home to oversight proceedings. It turned out I didn’t venture out, much less oversighting.

I stayed in a temporary home in the land of sacred homes. Mary McKillop Place in the next street, every second building is an Australian Catholic University campus. But a sacred shelter I didn’t feel my neighbourhood was.

I went for solitude walks in St Leonards Park, young fathers pushing strollers, few people shared my space…except, came late afternoon, joggers started to pound the paths, working off their strangely isolated work day of Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

I ducked into grassland to hide from their enthusiasm, acutely aware of Norman Swan’s estmation of the air power of these human moving machines. We shared the same health goals but for the quarter centry that separated our births. They will have a lifetime of struggles ahead of them. Those muscle-proud legs will run strong against life’s headwinds.

Life became somewhat tentative. Decision Fatigue is the syndrome they name it. Take it easy, take it slow, every interaction with the ouside world calls for deliberation.

So Corona, look what you made me do in this valley of time. I became a bit tentative approaching my trusted tradesmen until they showed me, in my absence, how they patiently restored my 19th century home for it to last another 100 years. I was a little shy with my elderly neighbour until she was the first to mask up to shield both of us.

Depending on our perspectives, this can be a tiny glimpse of humanity, or indeed a huge deal showing me the irreprssibly positive power of community, our Aussie community.

  • KIM VU

BALCONY INTRIGUE IN PARIS

Only a week into my fellowship at the Cite Internationale des Arts and we’re in lockdown. Just my luck. Who would’ve thought this mean virus could attack Paris, of all places? The City of Love, where people entwined in the streets, or in the Metro, are common sights? Now the streets are almost empty, and hardly anyone dares board the Metro. From my tiny balcony I can just see the Place Pont Marie, usually swarming with commuters, is deserted.

It is said this new virus acts a little like Puck’s magic potion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: those infected will feel the pangs of love for whoever they lock eyes with. There are strict boundaries drawn on every promenade. Cafes and bars along the boulevards are closed, and cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge are memories.

I’ve been given the Nancy Keesing Studio to write in, as befitting a woman author from Australia. Across the courtyard is another writer’s studio. He’s the well-known Portuguese poet I’ve long admired. I was so looking forward to meeting him, discussing our work together. But it’s not to be. I must content myself with a glimpse through his window of his black curly head bent over his desk. He glances up and returns my gaze. I feel like a voyeur and quickly look away.

Next door to his studio is another with a tiny balcony just like mine. A woman steps on to it, dressed only in a negligee. Even from this distance I can see she’s wearing nothing underneath it. I recognise her with a jolt of excitement and some embarrassment: it’s our own great poet and essayist, the controversial Emily Von Grun. Wait! She’s leaning over her balcony towards the Portuguese poet’s window. She throws a small pebble, expertly aimed , so that it hits the edge of the pane. He looks up and smiles. A moment later his window is empty.

The virus, named Eros 20, impels the victim to make love to any man or woman, youth or elder, who they set eyes on, indiscriminate of race or creed. The inevitable outcome of this overwhelming passion is death.

Through the window opposite I can see Emily, apparently naked, lying limply over her desk. Her greying auburn hair flows over the keys of her computer. I reach for my phone, horror creeping up my spine. As I do so there’s a knock on my door.

It’s the Portuguese poet. His beautiful green eyes are alight with lust. I back away as he advances. He is too strong for me, and in spite of, or perhaps because of, my terror, my body responds. In the midst of overwhelming passion my only thought is: what a wonderful way to die.

Paris is still the City of Love, especially in the time of Eros20.

DINA DAVIS

For more fiction by Dina Davis, see her recent novel: