UC Emeritus Professor helps PM unveil national 1918 flu pandemic memorial

08 November 2019

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled the national memorial to 9,000 New Zealand victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, Wellington, on 6 November, assisted by University of Canterbury Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Rice, former Head of History in the College of Arts.

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    Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveils the national memorial to the 1918 influenza pandemic in Wellington, assisted by University of Canterbury Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Rice (left).

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled the national memorial to 9,000 New Zealand victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic in Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, Wellington, on 6 November, assisted by University of Canterbury Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Rice, former Head of History in the College of Arts.

The memorial features a graphic representation of the scale of the pandemic’s impact across New Zealand regions from north to south. The memorial was the culmination of a long campaign started by Professor Rice several years ago to gain recognition for the victims of New Zealand’s worst public health disaster. In a matter of months the flu claimed half as many New Zealanders’ lives as the whole First World War. No other event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time.

The previous government showed no interest, Professor Rice says, but a letter to Jacinda Ardern soon after she became Prime Minister struck a chord. As she told the assembled guests at Pukeahu National War Memorial at the unveiling ceremony, she resolved then and there: “Let’s do this!”

Originally intended to coincide with 2018’s centenary of the pandemic, the memorial was not ready in time, and was further delayed by the 15 March 2019 mosque attacks in Christchurch. It was rescheduled for November 2019, the worst month of the pandemic in New Zealand 101 years earlier. As the Prime Minister remarked: “better late than never”.

In his speech at the unveiling, Professor Rice drew attention to the heavy death toll, especially among Māori. Māori suffered losses at a rate at least seven times that of the Pākēha population. He announced that an electronic version of his list of registered Māori deaths has been made available to all runanga throughout the country under the title Nga Manu Haumumu (The Silenced Birds). He warned that the world still faces the risk of a similar pandemic in this age of mass jet travel, and quoted Bill Gates’ estimate of 33 million deaths from a repeat of the so-called ‘Spanish flu’.

After presenting copies of his three books about the 1918 flu pandemic to the Prime Minister, Professor Rice along with about 50 invited guests watched a short dramatic interlude directed by Kerryn Palmer depicting an episode in a temporary influenza hospital in November 1918.

Also in attendance were Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Cabinet ministers Carmel Sepuloni and Julie-Anne Genter, along with the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and Chief Executive Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage Bernadette Cavanagh.

Watch the news on the memorial unveiling:

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    Pictured with the memorial are (from left) Professors Nick Wilson, Geoff Rice, and Michael Baker, collaborators in recent epidemiological research on the 1918 flu pandemic in New Zealand.

For further information please contact:

UC Communications team, media@canterbury.ac.nz, Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168

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