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Pandemics, how New Zealand managed before covid19

  • 2 minutes

New Zealand

Containment, separation and treatment

Pandemics are as old as human society. So is isolation and quarantine. From the 1870s the New Zealand colonial government  implemented quarantine regulations to manage the introduction of infectious diseases into New Zealand. People who were infected, or were suspected of being infected, were housed in quarantine stations until they were deemed to be healthy.

Today when you visit these stations you are struck by the physical isolation of the station, the rigorous stripping of personal identity with disinfectant washes, the removal of clothing and the removal of individuals from society. The poignant graves are sombre reminders that some people never made it to the place they had vested their dreams in.

Some places in Aotearoa New Zealand are a window to a world of quarantine and infectious diseases.

Waipiata sanatorium, New Zealand @Andrew
Waipiata sanatorium @Andrew

Under the sweeping views of mountains is Waipiata where people with tuberculosis (consumptives) went to recover.

The average stay was half a year with some spending years breathing in the brisk ozone layers of Central Otago.

An extraordinary collection of early twentieth century hospital buildings is a physical reminder of a deadly disease that killed one in four inhabitants before it was managed by modern medicine.

To find out more about the quarantine hospital check What’s so great about Ranfurly for details.


Ships with sick people aboard had to raise the yellow flag and go into quarantine, a dismal introduction to the New World for people who had already been cooped up for three to five uncomfortable months at sea.

  1. Matiu / Somes Island (Wellington) – Quarantine Island

The island Matiu/Somes island, day trip from Wellington — what to do – Best Bits has a storehouse of stories of World War I banished soldiers with venereal disease.

There is the  requisite solitary cemetery with its burial mounds and quarantine buildings.

The Island has dedicated volunteers involved in plantings, restoration and ensuring the island’s past is not forgotten.

Matiu Somes Island aerial view, New Zealand
Matiu Somes Island

In clear sight of the harbour residents is a quarantine station. Since the nineteenth century the island has had a quarantine station.  Suspected cases of diseases like typhoid, smallpox and scarlet fever were compelled to stop there. Near the jetty on the eastern side of the island lies the remains of a fumigation shed where those suspected of infection were cleansed with noxious gases.  After World War II the island became the principal quarantine station for animals until the late 1960’s.

The lighthouse has illuminated the harbour since 1900.  Up until 1924, there were lightkeepers living on the island.  Today the lighthouse still functions although it is automated.  The island is managed by the Department of Conservation with an onsite ranger and volunteers ensuring the island is predator free. The island became rat-free in the 1980s and is now home to the world’s smallest penguin, weta, geckos, tuatara, and a whole host of birds such as parakeets, robins relocated from Kapiti Island.

Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua @Stuff / BROOK SABIN
Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua @Stuff / BROOK SABIN
  1.  Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua (Otago)

The island Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua has a wealth of stories from soldiers banished with venereal disease during World War I, several shipwrecks and the requisite solitary cemetery with its burial mounds and quarantine buildings. The Island has dedicated volunteers involved in plantings, restoration and ensuring the island’s past is not forgotten. As part of the heritage trail of Port Chalmers (Otago) is the story of the quarantine island in sight of the busy port. For further information check here,  Port Chalmers Heritage Places To See. Immigration Period between 1861 to 1915 witnessed 41 ships in quarantine with over 9000 people caught up in the process. There are records of 72 deaths in quarantine and buried in the island cemetery. While the names and cause of death of 62 is documented most graves are unmarked and forgotten who lie beneath.

  1. Ōtamahua (Quail Island) in Lyttelton Harbour

Ōtamahua/Quail Island is an inner harbour island, reached via a short ferry ride from Lyttelton. It’s Canterbury’s largest island but is easily explored in a day.The beautiful and pest free Ōtamahua is home to historic sites such as the ship’s graveyard and the quarantine barracks. The Department of Conservation managed the island with 4.5 km of walking tracks easily accessible in a day.

Beautiful view of Lyttelton Port and Harbour, New Zealand
Lyttelton Port and Harbour


  • Views of ship’s graveyard with 13 visible wrecks deliberately scuttled off-shore
  • View replica leper hut
  • Stone terraces built by prisoners from Lyttelton Jail in early 20th century
  • Dog kennels where Shackleton and Scott housed their dogs prior to departing for their Antarctic expeditions.
  • Poignant solitary grave of the only leper to die there, 20-year-old Ivan Skelton, who was visiting relatives at Westport in 1918 when he was diagnosed and moved to Quail Island. He died alone five years later.

The quarantine barracks have information plaques, replica original photographs and displayed documents narrating the story of the island.

Historic water tower on Motuihe Island, Hauraki Gulf, Auckland, New Zealand
Historic water tower on Motuihe Island, Hauraki Gulf, Auckland
  1. Motuihe island quarantine island (Auckland)

Day trip from Auckland to Motuihe Island day trip is a trip back to a quarantine island. The island encapsulates New Zealand history reaching back hundreds of years, Maori settlement, European farming, the site of Auckland’s quarantine station for over 50 years, a prisoner of war internment camp and a training ground for NZ Navy.

In 1872 a smallpox riddled ship entered Auckland harbour with the authorities quickly dispatching passengers to Motuihe Island. In 1918 the influenza epidemic witnessed the island as a place where patients were sent to. Similar to Somes Island (Wellington) the island became an animal quarantine station. By 1930, this had moved to Wellington’s Matiu/Somes Island. The island’s volunteer guardians have compiled a history of the island as a guarantee station, for further details check here 1872 & 1918 Quarantine Stations.


Te Araroa New Zealand, one of the country’s preeminent online resources, describes the history of epidemics and disease in New Zealand. Here are two stories.

Scarlet fever was a major killer in the 19th century. A gravestone in the Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington shows how devastating this disease could be. Five of the Wallace family children, whose ages ranged from three to 11, died from scarlet fever between 5 and 24 May 1865. A sixth child (not commemorated on this gravestone) died three months later. The cause of death is inscribed at the bottom of the gravestone and accompanied by a passage from the King James Bible: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.

Vaccination messaging and the reason for Maori and Pasifika communities to be protected. Te Araroa New Zealand’s online resource has among many articles two that resonate with today’s events.

Measles at Parihaka

European settlers brought with them to New Zealand many new infectious diseases to which Māori had no immunity. Measles and influenza, in particular, caused many deaths. This newspaper report describes a fatal outbreak of measles at Parihaka in Taranaki during a hui (meeting) in 1887.


The outstanding research undertaken by Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand – Dunedin

Child with smallpox, 1904

Vaccination against  smallpox – the terror of the early twentieth century and before

Child with smallpox, 1904

Smallpox was a highly infectious and deadly disease. Sufferers were often thickly covered with large, prominent, fluid-filled spots all over their body and sometimes internally. This girl, who had not been vaccinated, is infected with smallpox. It is likely that, if she survived, she would have been badly scarred for the rest of her life. Presumably the nurse on whose knee she is sitting has been vaccinated.


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