FLASHBACK: How Africa fared when the Spanish flu came calling in 1918/19


The Spanish flu called influenza took quite a toll on the world, with 500 million people infected and about 20 million to 100 million others believed dead in three successive waves between 1918 and 1919. It remains the deadliest pandemic in human history.

The disease presented itself as a high fever, a wet cough with white sputum, headache and joint pains, and lasted about eight days before turning fatal. Interestingly, researchers traced the onset of the so-called Spanish Flu to a military camp in Etaples, France, during the First World War.

Nonpharmaceutical interventions such as school closings, restrictions on large gatherings, and isolation and quarantine were the centerpiece of the response to the Spanish Flu.

Yet, even though its cause was unknown and the science of vaccine development was in its infancy, considerable enthusiasm also existed for using vaccines to prevent its spread.

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This desire far exceeded the scientific knowledge and technological capabilities at that point in time.

In Africa, the deadly disease wiped out friends, loved ones, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers.

The epidemic in Africa led to renewed ‘sanitation syndrome’ fears by white residents that the infection was spread by black inhabitants, and gave further weight to calls for legally enforced racial segregation.

An Author, Howard Phillips, who wrote extensively on the impact of Influenza in South Africa, described how the threat of the disease came to be used as an instrument for the enforcement of racist legislation.

The pandemic brought economic life to a standstill, but it did more than that alone, it literally ended the productive life of many economic activities. One such activity was industrial mining, an activity which by its very nature has bequeathed Africans with substantial archival material.

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The material available suggests that “Spanish Influenza” was introduced into Sierra Leone by the warship H.M.S. Mantua, which arrived in Freetown, capital and harbour of the British colony of Sierra Leone, on 15 August 1918, whilst escorting two passenger ships from Plymouth.

Captain of the Mantua, A. Dawson, later reported that on 31 July, “influenza was epidemic at Plymouth when Mantua and ships of her convoy left port”. In turn the Governor of Sierra Leone later reported to the Secretary of State that “the sanitary affairs of warships lie outside civil control and influenza is not a notifiable disease”. Consequently no report was made.

On the day of its arrival, and contrary to the explicit warnings of medical men the Mantua was coaled by local labour.

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In the week following the coaling, the number of labourers absent from work at the coaling station kept increasing and by the 27th August some five hundred out of six hundred were absent from work.

In the disbelieving and shocked words of the Governor: “The disease spread with devastating rapidity, disorganizing everything. Everybody was attacked almost at once. Of my own household of twenty servants not one escaped; and on one day I had to attend to their work myself. It can be easily understood what such a state of affairs would mean to others less fortunately situated.”

See the total number of deaths recorded in Nigeria during the pandemic of 1918-19:

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