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South Africa and Covid-19: Lessons from 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak

President Cyril Ramaphosa gets his temperature checked by a health worker during his visit to an isolation and quarantine facility at the Agricultural Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa gets his temperature checked by a health worker during his visit to an isolation and quarantine facility at the Agricultural Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg. Picture: GCIS

Published May 6, 2020


The arrival of a global pandemic to the shores of South Africa is nothing new. On 13 September 1918, the first case of the Spanish Flu was reported at the dockside in Durban. Less than a week later the first case had reached Cape Town. Soldiers serving His Majesty in the Great War had inadvertently brought back with them a virus that would go on to kill half a million South Africans over the coming months. 

After it had finally ebbed, a doctor reflected in the South African Medical Record in January 1919; “It has truly been an irreparable calamity which has fallen on South Africa.” 

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The Spanish Flu would kill almost 4% of the world’s population in just over a year.

Today, we are in the midst of another global pandemic. Covid-19, which originated in China, has affected every corner of the world bringing life and economies to a standstill. Here in South Africa, the government has been swift to take action by imposing a strict national lockdown that has attempted to control the spread of this crippling pandemic. 

I believe that history is vital now in teaching us valuable lessons from the past. In fact, there are many comparisons with the current situation and the crisis that South Africans faced back in 1918. 

Like then, our first recorded case of Covid-19 appeared here in KZN (then Natal) with the people affected having just returned from Europe. You see, the spread of both Covid-19 and the Spanish Flu was due to travel – either between continents or regions. 

In 1918, it was the movement of returning troops as well as the migration of mine workers that maintained the rapid infection rate. Today, it was brought by tourists to our ports and airports. And, like in 1918, it would be a week before the first case was reported in Cape Town (on 11 March 2020). 

As with the Spanish Flu, certain regions of South Africa are worse affected by the current Covid-19 pandemic. 

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While all 9 Provinces have confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection, the highest numbers are in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KZN, with 85% of all reported cases in those areas. The port cities of Cape Town and Durban have been particularly affected where the large numbers of tourists and international travelers have made these regions vulnerable to the arrival of new cases. The concentrated populations within their urban areas and the movement of this population, has also maintained the spread of the infection. 

There is also evidence to suggest that the humid climate of these coastal zones supports the transfer of the virus amongst the population. Those inland regions, such as Limpopo and the Northern Cape, with fewer urban and densely populated areas, have thus far shown a lower rate of infection. For this reason, the government remains wary of the risk to places in other parts of the country, like Soweto, where over 1.5 million people live in close proximity.

We should indeed learn the lessons from 1918. Then we discovered the importance of self-isolation and social distancing. Covid-19 requires hosts in order to survive so only by refraining from large social gatherings will this virus be brought under control. With the appropriate management we can still limit the effect of this current pandemic. 

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The Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 remains the world’s worst natural disaster. South Africans survived that challenge as we will survive this.  

* Dr Dean Allen has presented his unique blend of story-telling and history at events throughout the world. Over the past decade Dean has taught at Universities in South Africa, Australia, Northern Ireland and England and is widely published in the areas of cultural history and sociology. He is the author of the award-nominated book Empire, War and Cricket, which has sold over 10,000 copies alone in South Africa.

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