Spanish Flu, the COVID-19 pandemic and the AFL/VFL


The AFL has been considerably more cautious than the VFL, when it faced a profoundly deadlier pandemic.


Spanish flu, which began at the end of the First World War, produced the most lethal pandemic in world history infecting 500 million people and killing up to a million people. Australia had 2 million casualties and 15,000 deaths. The virulence of the flu was such that people could die within hours of experiencing their first symptoms, which were chills, shivering fits, headaches, muscle pains, vomiting and diarrhoea.


In an effort to suppress the spread of the disease, the Government shut down schools, theatres, halls and other public buildings and state borders. Face masks were in common use. The age group most affected by the flu were 20-40 year olds. Meetings or groups of more than 20 people were prohibited but, amazingly, it allowed football to continue. Indeed, the VFL added a reserves competition and the VFA and other minor competitions were allowed to continue. It was believed that outside air, particularly cold air, would repress the disease. There was also a belief that a community starved of football and other entertainments, needed relief and a boost in morale after the tragedies and restrictions of the war.


Teams were hard hit by the pandemic, but no clubs were forced to withdraw. Players caught the flu, recovered and returned to the playing field. Hugh Buggy of the Argus recalled that teams had “sudden reversals of form” but no player died from the disease.


There were several outbreaks of the disease, with the first recorded case in Melbourne occurring on January 12 1919 however, by October, the pandemic was over.


What will the AFL do about the current football season? There appears to be no clear way forward. A 17 game season, playing in isolation hubs, cancelling the season are three suggestions which have been mooted. But what about metropolitan, junior, country football and women’s football?


My view from afar is that we should come out of lockdown very gradually, mindful of the possibility of another wave of COVID-19 if we ease restrictions too soon. I can live without football until next November, when all clubs will be back into pre-season training for 2021. Imagine the excitement which will be created in the minds of football-starved supporters. What do you think?



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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  1. Richard, it is increasingly looking like the AFL will resume in July or August.
    But who knows?
    It will be interesting to see how they structure the season.

  2. At least 50 million died worldwide in the 1918-20 Spanish flu (conservative estimate, probably was a much higher toll but record-keeping during the pandemic was imprecise due to the overwhelming scale of the catastrophe and the urgency to depose of bodies for fear of further spreading contagion).

  3. Ta Richard.

    I’ve watched the NRL try to jiggle, shake every possible way to minimise disruptions to their season. This is primarily related to their less than astute financial acumen. They seem to have well established links within both the NSW and Federal governments, able to accomodate their wishes. They’re looking at late May for a kick off. Empty grounds make sense for them.

    The AFL have been far more nuanced in their actions. Having Colonial Stadium, or whatever it’s new name is, gives the AFL bargaining power. Certainly far more financially stable than the NRL. Let’s watch the AFL announce their return, in what ever format, then see how the season pans out.

    Re the Gee-Gee’s, they’ve kept running.During the Spanish Flu racing went into recess. As a part owner of a race horse, as well as a punter it’s been interesting. No betting for me for 5 weeks, as i’m not interested in having an app or betting online. My horse is nominated for the Leeton Cup on Thursday. Let’s see how he goes.

    Compared to so much of the world us and our cousins across the ditch have done pretty well. I had my Covid 19 test at work this week: all clear. Let’s close this post with the words of the head of the World Health Organisation:TEST,TEST,TEST !!!


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