On Anzac Day, Henry Lunney reflects on surviving the Great Depression, World War II and the deadly coronavirus.
Walking over Sydney Harbour Bridge on its opening day in March 1932, it wasn’t the people in their three-piece suits or the marching band playing the British National Anthem that 8-year-old Henry Lunney remembered most. It was a feeling of relief.
“I walked with my parents from south to north,” Lunney told HuffPost Australia via email from his aged care facility in Sydney. “It is downhill, (I felt) relief that I didn’t need to walk back, we caught a train.”
Relief could be a lingering feeling for Lunney, who recently recovered from COVID-19 after testing positive for the illness in March.
Lunney’s aged-care home — Dorothy Henderson Lodge, in Sydney’s Macquarie Park — was one of Australia’s first coronavirus clusters after a 50-year-old woman working at the BaptistCare facility fell ill in late February. On March 3, the home recorded its first death — that of a 95-year-old resident. Six residents have now died from the virus.
BaptistCare confirmed to HuffPost that 21 residents at the rest home have been infected with COVID-19 - Lunney was one of them.
“We have now had nine residents who have recovered from COVID-19 and five staff members have recovered,” a spokesperson said.
Lunney, said that from March 5, BaptistCare staff tested everyone and he was confined to his room. His only contact with another human was when he received meals. The World War II veteran confirmed that the coronavirus test is, indeed, uncomfortable.
“The nostril test involves poking a narrow tube up my nostril,” he said. “The subject doesn’t like it, neither does the tester.”
After testing positive for COVID-19, Lunney was what some doctors would describe as asymptomatic.
“How did I feel? I didn’t feel sick, apart from a runny nose,” he explained.
After several more tests, Lunney finally got a negative result but was still under strict orders to isolate in his room. “If it wasn’t for my computer and access to the Internet, the boredom would be excruciating,” he added.
The retired engineer will turn 97 next month and can use modern tech products comfortably. But being brainy isn’t anything new for Lunney, who could read fluently when he started school in Sydney’s North Strathfield at age 6 and was put forward a few grades. He arrived at university at the grand old age of 15.
“The consequences were disastrous,” he wrote in his memoir, “Lunney Family History.”
“For the rest of my school days I was the smallest in the class, and got accustomed to being the immature bright one,” he said.
The problem of cleverness aside, Lunney also survived one of the darkest times in Australia’s history. He lived through the Great Depression, from 1929 until 1940.
Australia recorded one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world at the time, peaking at just over 19% in 1932 but Lunney remembers the statistic got closer to 33.3%.
“My Father was in a government job, so he was never unemployed, although all salaries were reduced,” Lunney said of his living circumstances at the time.
“So there was always money coming in. My mother always had cash for shopping. At the age of eight, I was quite unaware of the implications of ‘the great depression of the 1930s,’” he wrote.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the world economy is set to suffer its worst year since the 1930s, the International Monetary Fund said in its latest forecast.
When I asked Lunney what he thought about the “extraordinary” press coverage of the coronavirus, he pointed to the enormous loss of life during the Spanish flu epidemic after World War I — 50 million people died.
“I get the newspaper (Sydney Morning Herald) every day; I read about the virus there,” he said. “I view the whole thing as a nuisance.”
Other “nuisances” Lunney described included “when the Wallabies arrived by ship in England in 1939 to find World War II and a cancelled tour” and arriving at the New South Wales country town of “Wee Jasper in 1955, hungry, to find not a light on.”
Lunney knows about war and unrest. He served in World War II at two anti-aircraft sites in Darwin and helped protect the southern section of Darwin Harbour during the conflict. But once again, he weathered that unkind milestone in Australia’s history and came out on the other side quite unbothered.
“I didn’t suffer at all. Moreover, nothing that I did affected the result,” he said of his time in Darwin. But there were significant struggles ahead after peace was declared in 1945.
“Postwar shortages affected everything,” he wrote in his memoir, adding that today’s simple resources like tyres (for his 1927 Chandler that towed the caravan he lived in with his wife and baby) were unobtainable in 1946.
So how does being involved in a world war and struggling in the aftermath compare to fighting 2020’s war against the coronavirus?
“Many servicemen and servicewomen suffered, both in WWI and WWII,” Lunney said. “Anzac Day is for them.”
“I have always felt unworthy to march,” he said, adding that he will pay his respect this Saturday with “silent appreciation of the efforts of others.”
Although Lunney realises the world is in a tough spot right now, he acknowledges that things have been much worse, and we should all perhaps get on with it.
“Complaints about restrictions? I have a saying: ‘Find something to complain about!’”
“In the Army, there was a saying. ‘There’s a war on!’”