Spanish flu to Covid-19: Lessons from past pandemics

22 January 2021 | Opinion

Bonang Mohale



In late September 1918, Philadelphia prematurely ended its quarantine from the February 1918-April 1920 Spanish flu pandemic to throw a parade to boost morale for the war effort. About 200,000 people lined the streets. Within 72 hours, every bed in Philadelphia's 31 hospitals was filled and the city ended up with 4,500 people dying from the pandemic or its complications within days.

This was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus that infected 500 million people – about a third of the world's population at the time – in four successive waves. In the spring of 1918, just as the human-made horrors of World War 1 were finally starting to wind down, Mother Nature unleashed the deadliest strain of influenza in modern history. The virus infected as many as 40% of the global population over the next 18 months. Of these, an estimated 20 million to 50 million died – more than the roughly 17 million people killed during WW1.

The pandemic's grasp stretched from the US and Europe to South Africa and the remote reaches of Greenland and the Pacific islands. Its victims included President Woodrow Wilson, who contracted it while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in early 1919.

As the pandemic reached epic proportions in the spring of 1919, it became commonly known as the Spanish flu or Spanish Lady in the US and Europe. Many assumed this was because the sickness had originated on the Iberian Peninsula, but the nickname was the result of a widespread misunderstanding.

Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral during WW1. Unlike in the Allied and Central Powers nations, where wartime censors suppressed news of the flu to avoid affecting morale, the Spanish media were free to report on it in gory detail. News of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late May 1918, and coverage only increased after King Alfonso XIII came down with a nasty case a week later.

Since nations undergoing a media blackout could only read in-depth accounts from Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed the country was the pandemic's ground zero. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus had spread to them from France, so they took to calling it the French flu.

While it's unlikely that the Spanish flu originated in Spain, scientists are still unsure of its source.

Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. The current Covid-19 pandemic mutation variant seems to have up to 70% transmissibility (more contagious), affecting higher socioeconomic groups/levels, though with up to 25% less mortality now that frontline staff know how to treat it much more effectively.

Back home, data from the Department of Health, University of the Witwatersrand, the National Coronavirus Command Council and medical schemes seem to confirm that deaths are probably understated by up to 100% when looking at “excess mortality”. Estimates are that up to 40% of the adult population could already be infected.

It is unfortunate that the second wave coincided with, and was aided by, our major annual holidays in December, with the majority of our people going back home to be with their loved ones, mostly to villages, and those who can afford it, going on holiday to Cape Town, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and Hermanus in the Western Cape, and Ballito, Umhlanga and elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal.

Unfortunately, the same people had to go back to work in major cities in the middle of January, thereby being exposed at least twice. The annual migration from neighbouring countries, with our highly porous borders and high levels of corruption, can only exacerbate a dire situation. January has already presented the highest Covid-19 admissions, giving us one of the highest daily infection tracking in the world.

Major areas of concern remain KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Gauteng. Limpopo could still be better prepared and better equipped. The biggest concern must surely be the perception that vaccines will be the silver bullet. Our only salvation and best defence for some time will still be working from home, self-quarantine, physical distancing, wearing masks, and regularly washing hands with running water and soap.

The president has set us a herd immunity national target of 67%. That's 40 million people at 100,000 per day! Our social partners – government, business, labour and the Solidarity Fund specifically – having gained access to the Covax facility, are, like most countries, going about it in an integrated, coordinated, moral and ethical manner.

It is in the country's enlightened self-interest to take care of those most at risk first – frontline workers, essential workers, people in old age homes, teachers, people in descending order of age ( >75 years, >65 years, and so on) and people with comorbidities – to stand the slightest chance of ultimately defeating this unusually deadly virus and maintaining a modicum of hope. Daily Maverick

· Bonang Mohale is Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

Similar News

 

Women still live in fear

21 hours ago | Opinion

Namibians can be proud of the progressive legal frameworks that are in place to protect women from violence and discrimination.Legally, women are ensured of the...

EDITORIAL

3 days ago - 05 March 2021 | Opinion

“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” This powerful observation by Anglo-American poet Wystan Hugh Auden reminds us of exactly why government needs...

The graduate unemployment crisis – A catalyst for youth...

3 days ago - 05 March 2021 | Opinion

TJEKUPE MAXIMALLIANT KATJIMUNEIn the coming months, thousands of mostly young adults will graduate from Namibia’s three biggest universities with various qualifications. They are not alone.They...

EDITORIAL

4 days ago - 04 March 2021 | Opinion

The phony attempts by mainly men in the National Unity Democratic Organisation (Nudo) to undermine its president Esther Muinjangue will only further dissuade women from...

EDITORIAL

5 days ago - 03 March 2021 | Opinion

A business ecosystem is described as the network of organisations - including suppliers, distributors, customers, competitors, government agencies, and so on - involved in the...

The role of the microbiome in our health

5 days ago - 03 March 2021 | Opinion

Microbiome? What's that? Before you shy away from this article because of its scientific terms…please hear me out. I will try to simplify it as...

EDITORIAL

6 days ago - 02 March 2021 | Opinion

It is said that “fools multiply when wise men are silent”. Our country is overflowing with astute men and women who are prepared, if given...

Vox Pop

6 days ago - 02 March 2021 | Opinion

What are your academic goals for 2021?2020 was a challenging year for most learners due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Zone spoke to learners at...

EDITORIAL

1 week ago - 01 March 2021 | Opinion

A myriad of school-boy errors led to last Friday’s election re-runs in the Hardap and //Karas regions and the taxpayer will cough up heavily for...

Swapo can’t be left alone, Mr President!

1 week ago - 26 February 2021 | Opinion

President Hage Geingob’s assertion that people shouldn’t worry about Swapo’s problems cannot be left unchallenged.The president’s remarks seem to be rooted in misconception that those...

Latest News

RCC employees sent home until...

21 hours ago | Business

Over 60 employees of the Roads Contractor Company (RCC) were on Thursday sent home after being denied access to their rented offices, which are owned...

Gondwana and Hollard head back...

21 hours ago | Justice

ELLANIE SMITWINDHOEKGondwana Collection Namibia and Hollard Insurance Namibia will face each other again in court on 31 March after Gondwana last week brought an urgent...

'Premature' to discuss fracking

21 hours ago | Environment

ELLANIE SMITWINDHOEKEnvironment minister Pohamba Shifeta says it is “premature and confusing” at this stage to discuss the risks of fracking in the Kavango regions, when...

Veterans want to be appointed...

21 hours ago | Politics

TUYEIMO HAIDULAEMBANDU The president of the Namibia National Liberation Veterans Association (NNLVA), Ben Shikongo, says members of the organisation want to be appointed to...

Women in commercial banking leadership

21 hours ago | Business

STAFF REPORTERThe Namibian Financial Sector Charter, introduced by the Ministry of Finance in November 2008, constitutes a framework and establishes the principles upon which empowerment...

Kenya to reject budget if...

21 hours ago | Economics

OMAR MOHAMMEDA Kenyan parliamentary committee said that it will reject the government's 2021/22 budget plan if the deficit goal is set at more than the...

Fishing rights announcement soon

21 hours ago | Fishing

OGONE TLHAGEWINDHOEKFisheries minister Albert Kawana is expected to announce who his ministry has chosen for new fishing rights at the end of this month.This brings...

Women still live in fear

21 hours ago | Opinion

Namibians can be proud of the progressive legal frameworks that are in place to protect women from violence and discrimination.Legally, women are ensured of the...

Zimbabwe's manufacturing bullish on better...

21 hours ago | Economics

Zimbabwean manufacturers expect to ramp up production to 61% of capacity this year, the highest level in a decade, on expected stability in the foreign...

Load More