A hundred years ago today: Dancing with the devil – Spanish flu reaches south western Africa - News - Gondwana Collection

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A hundred years ago today: Dancing with the devil – Spanish flu reaches south western Africa

Avatar of inke inke - 09. October 2018 - Discover Namibia

Mannfred Goldbeck

On the 9th October 1918, the first victim of Spanish flu in the country was reported. The devastating epidemic that had spread across the world like wildfire had finally reached South West Africa (present day Namibia).

This little-mentioned epidemic was no small flu. It rushed around the globe with a vengeance and claimed 20 to 100 million people, more than the casualties from both world wars put together. It is estimated that 2.5 per cent of the world population fell victim to its brutal onslaught.

After it took the life of train steward, Mr J Bester, in Windhoek, other casualties began to be reported. When the Union of South Africa troops entered German South West Africa at the onset of World War One, 250 soldiers from both sides were lost in the fighting. The epidemic that raged across the globe between August and November 1918, at the tail end of the war, would kill ten times that amount. 

It was spread via the transport routes: the railways, the waterways and the footpaths. It knocked the steam from populations whose immune systems had been weakened during the war with its stresses and food shortages, and when movement of troops across the world was at a high. 

The Spanish flu swept through the Aus prisoner-of-war camp in 1918. (Source: Namibia National Archives)

The epidemic, which started with symptoms like headaches, aching limbs, a flushed face, red eyes, a quick pulse and high temperature, had its beginning in North America. Two ships, the Jaroslav and the Veroney, carried it to Cape Town. The South African labour contingents on board, who had been helping in the war effort, stopped en route in Freetown on the west coast of Africa, where the epidemic was rife. In southern Africa, it quickly spread upcountry all the way to the Zambezi in southern Rhodesia. It claimed the lives of 140 000 people in South Africa alone. 

Those four months in 1918 put the world in crisis. The epidemic was blind to social boundaries and norms and affected everyone equally, irrespective of race, nationality and religion. 

Surprisingly, although vicious and swift, the epidemic was kept quiet so as not to lower the soldiers’ morale. Spain, however, who was not at war, was free to report on it, and while far from its source in North America, the epidemic became known as Spanish flu.

The tragedy brought good Samaritans out of the woodwork and people began to help each other across national and racial divides. The real heroes were the health-workers - the doctors, nurses, missionaries and nuns - many of whom also lost their lives.

People are always eager to pinpoint the area where the flu began, and the first casualty. This ‘patient zero’ as he is referred to, is thought to be an Albert Gitchell who died in Boston on 4 March 1918.

In the US, the hardest hit place was Bristol Bay in Alaska where forty per cent of the population perished. In South Africa, ten per cent of the population in the Ciskei died. Generally, worldwide, the death toll was highest in the poorer countries, and everyone was affected, even the countries not at war. It is said that the fatalities are underestimated as many of the deaths, especially in the rural areas and across Asia, were unreported.

Spanish flu was not the first flu epidemic known to humankind. In 1830, Europe suffered from a fierce flu epidemic and in 1889, the Russian flu killed about a million people. These epidemics had their roots in the nineteenth century at the time of the industrial revolution when people left the countryside and flocked to the towns and cities. The rapid expansion and the crowded conditions were a fertile breeding ground for disease.

Doctors had no experience of how to deal with Spanish flu, and treatment included fresh air, Epsom salt, castor oil, aspirin and bed rest.

Funeral at the cemetery in Aus, 1918. (Source: Namibia National Archives)

Simply called influenza in southern Africa, the pandemic arrived at a low point in southern African history, after the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, the Nama-Herero uprising in 1904 to 1907, a period of severe drought and World War One (1914-1918). To top it all, was the economic depression that arrived in the wake of the war. 

In South West Africa, the main areas affected were the railway hotspots - Karasburg, Windhoek and Usakos - and the mining areas - Tsumeb, Windhoek and Swakopmund. The epidemic also spread its tendrils into the crowded township areas like the Old Location.

It swept through the Aus prisoner-of-war camp, where German soldiers were interned and affected friend and foe with equal measure. There was no division or prejudice in its reach. 

Good Samaritans are remembered, like Gabriel (surname unknown) from Outjo for his selfless service with the ill and deceased, and Mrs Nelson from Aus, the wife of the South African Major, who gave her life while helping to nurse both South African soldiers and German prisoners.

Mary Ann 'Breeza' Nelsonand her husband Garrison Adjutant, Major Edward Irving Nelson. As a tribute to her selfless commitment she was buried with military honours – even though she was a civilian. The inscription on her gravestone reads: "She gave her life while she wanted to help others".

The influenza was also known by the Herero word ‘kapitohanga’, referring to the fact that it killed people faster than bullets. And, it did. It was urgent, ferocious and unstoppable. The world reeled, hospitals were overflowing and graves were filled faster than they could be dug.

Epidemics will always be inevitable on the planet, but whether one will again bring such devastation remains to be seen and its effect will be determined by the world and the time period it arrives in.

If there is any lesson to glean from this cruel and swift epidemic, it is perhaps that while we distance ourselves from others, fight our enemies for land, power and racial supremacy, in essence we are all one. 

Old Gammams Graveyard tombstones.
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