Coronavirus: remembering the polio epidemic of the 1940s


William Cox, 88, remembers a polio epidemic in his youth that had him house bound for three or four months.

SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

William Cox, 88, remembers a polio epidemic in his youth that had him house bound for three or four months.

While the idea of self-isolation is new for most of us, one Marlborough man remembers being in quarantine more than 75 years ago, during the polio epidemic. 

Even in the southern-most point of the South Island, self-isolation measures were used in the 1940s to protect people from the threat of polio. 

During the World War II in 1944, William Cox was in primary school in Slope Point, when similar restrictions as New Zealand faces today were placed on his small community. 

“All the schools were closed. We were allocated subjects or courses that we were to study at home,” Cox said. 

SHELLEY KNOWLES/UNICEF

Doug Hutchinson caught polio when he was six.

“Mass gatherings were cancelled but the war was still going at that stage so we had rations. My Dad had a ration of four gallons of petrol a month.”

Cox lived in a very remote part of the world, with no electricity and just one phone in the district – “as long as a tree hadn’t come down and taken the wire out”.

He said where they lived, “it didn’t make much difference if you were inside or outside” but they were expected to be confined to the home for three or four months. 

But even though he was born in the Depression and lived through the war, 88-year-old Cox said he has never seen anything quite like the current panic surrounding Covid-19.

A polio patient receiving treatment in Auckland Hospital in an iron lung in 1961.

Staff photographer

A polio patient receiving treatment in Auckland Hospital in an iron lung in 1961.

History often forgets that New Zealand experienced several polio epidemics between 1916 and 1956.

But there were a few key differences between polio and the novel coronavirus, Cox said. Unlike Covid-19, polio was usually not a fatal disease, but a disabling one. 

And the world was a lot less connected back in 1944.

“In those days, there wasn’t cruise ships or aircraft taking people around the world,” he said.

An iron lung machine used in Southland Hospital. There were several outbreaks of the disease in New Zealand in the Twentieth Century.

Barry Harcourt

An iron lung machine used in Southland Hospital. There were several outbreaks of the disease in New Zealand in the Twentieth Century.

“If you want to go to the UK, you spent a month on a ship, whereas now you can be here to the UK in 24 hours.”

Cox was concerned with how people today might cope with the realities of self-isolation. 

“I don’t think a lot of the modern generation would survive without having their cell phones,” he said.

“You get in the supermarket on the eve of a long weekend and look at the way their trolleys are loaded up, like they’re going to be locked up for 12 months.”

Cox is concerned about how the younger generation would go with self-isolation.

SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Cox is concerned about how the younger generation would go with self-isolation.

While he himself didn’t do much travel anymore – apart from to “perhaps Renwick” – he was concerned for the effects on the tourism and travel industries. Having worked as a railwayman in the Canterbury District and in the Ministry of Railways, he could see how jobs would be lost in these sectors. 

“There’s going to be a lot of complications and a lot to come yet,” he said. 

“One of the consequences of this virus is the amount of people that will be put out of work.

“There’s already thousands of forestry workers laid off, and the tourism industry and the airline industries. It’s not a world I’d like to be bringing up children in these days.”    

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Saturday that anyone arriving in New Zealand would be required to self-isolate for 14 days.

RICKY WILSON/STUFF

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Saturday that anyone arriving in New Zealand would be required to self-isolate for 14 days.

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