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Then and now: Bayworld researcher compares coronavirus with Spanish flu

LOOKING BACK: Bayworld history researcher Lindinxiwa Mahlasela has compared two pandemics which have hit South Africa
Image: Supplied

Bayworld Museum Complex history researcher Lindinxiwa Mahlasela has compared the coronavirus with the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which was the single most devastating episode in SA’s demographic history.

He said medical historian Prof Howard Phillips had written that the Spanish flu had devastated SA’s demographics, with about 500,000 people dying.

Mahlasela said: “This made the country the fifth-hardest hit by the pandemic worldwide. Some 62% of the dead were in the Cape province.

“The death rate was higher in the countryside with about 100,000 deaths in the Transkei alone.

“This was largely due to the fact that medical practitioners and other health services were scarce and help was slow to arrive.”

Mahlasela said poor people who lived in cities had been seriously affected by the flu because of poor health services and standards of living.

He said the Spanish flu had  started in Etaples, France, and spread to the US in 1918 where it struck troops who were awaiting shipping to Europe where World War 1 was being fought.

“By June that year 43,000 American troops had died. America deliberately misled the nation. They pointed out the origin of the virus as Spain, because the Spanish media were the first to report it.

“Other European countries allegedly censored news about the virus as it would have disrupted the war efforts and as a result the epidemic became known as the Spanish flu.

“Similarly the US of Donald Trump has accused the Chinese government and the World Health Organisation of deliberately concealing the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan and allowing it to spread throughout the world.”

In SA, two ships returning from the war carried individuals who had contracted the disease and a doctor in Cape Town believed the infected individuals had contracted the virus in Sierra Leone, Mahlasela said.

“Due to limited knowledge about the virus, the positive individuals were kept for examination [quarantine] for a few days and were then released to their respective destinations around the country.

“In Port Elizabeth, the virus came via a train from Cookhouse on October 4 1918. Within three days there were 16 cases of the virus.

“Dr John Galloway advised people to suspend travelling and to avoid visits and public gatherings. As is the case today, cities were the epicentres of the Spanish flu in 1918,” Mahlasela said.

He said this had prompted migrant workers to run to the countryside. One young man from Cape Town went to back home to Tsolo.

“Upon his arrival he attended intonjane [girl initiation]. Unknown to him he had the virus and he passed it on to 27 people who attended and they all died.

“The hundreds of minibus taxis from the cities that are transferring migrants to the Eastern Cape to attend funerals and other ceremonies are reminiscent of this story.”

Mahlasela said Port Elizabeth mayor Henry Forbes had in 1918 called upon residents to volunteer their services but some were already infected, which led to more fatalities.

“To save residents from the epidemic, makeshift hospitals were set up, including Old Provincial Hospital in Richmond Hill, Lazaretto in Humewood, Feather Market Hall and the Village Hall in Redhouse.

“New Provincial Hospital in Gabson Street, the Seaman’s institute South End, Russel Road fire station and North End library and a depot in New Brighton dispensed free medication.”

He said patients had been given a number of concoctions such as Umhlonyane (Artemisia afra),  chamberlain, Epsom salts and quinine, while those in Redhouse had been given champagne, with no deaths recorded.

Schooling, church services, theatres and other activities were shut down, similar to the lockdown now.

“About 2,000 [white people] died in Port Elizabeth. The number of other demographics is unknown, but the Eastern Province Herald on October 8 1918 stated that ‘as was only to have been expected its [Spanish flu] greatest ravages have been at New Brighton’.”

Credit: News from HeraldLIVE BY SIMTEMBILE MGIDI