When i grow up, I will develop a cure
How Spanish Flu Killed 500,000 Nigerians 102 Years Ago
Another pandemic 102 years ago: Volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium
In 1918, a pandemic virus, called the Spanish flu blew across the world like the current coronavirus and killed at least 50 million people. In Nigeria, then under colonial rule, an estimated 500,000 died.
There is a striking similarity between the two pandemics in the way they affected Nigeria: both were brought in by travellers.
A little over a century ago, the old killer virus was brought in by travellers arriving by ship from England. Fast forward to the present; travellers arriving by planes from Europe and United States are the chief vectors of the new virus.
Don C. Ohadike, a historian and one of the leading scholars on Igbo history wrote about the 1918 pandemic in the Social Science and Medicine Journal in 1991.
In the article titled, Diffusion and physiological responses to the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 in Nigeria, he wrote:
“The disease was introduced into Nigeria by passengers and crews who arrived via ship from overseas. Thus, coastal ports were the primary focus of the diffusion of the disease.
Its spread to the hinterland was facilitated by improvements in transportation technology. Neither maritime quarantine, nor the isolation of patients checked the spread of the disease.
“About 500,000 Nigerians, out of a population of 18 million, died in less than 6 months, and between 50 and 80% of the population was stricken.
‘The over-crowded urban centre were the hardest hit and, even though the pandemic declined almost as suddenly as it began, morbidity, mortality, and panic adversely affected the productive capacity of the country”.
Jan-Bart Gewald of the African Studies Centre Leiden, The Netherlands, who wrote about the Spanish flu in 2007, relied on Ohadike’s paper, about how the virus impacted Nigeria. But he went further to lament the dearth of global data on victims in many African countries, suggesting that the 500,000 quoted by Ohadike, even for Nigeria could have been a guesstimate.
In Gewald’s account, the virus travelled from England to Sierra Leone, then to Gold Coast, now Ghana before landing in Nigeria, the same way travellers move around today, going to high risk areas, only to bring the virus home with them.
Gewald gave a pan-African perspective about the Spanish virus, how it decimated African population in South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and reinforced the evil ideology of racial separation and supremacy. The virus affected the colonialists as well. But Africans living in cramped environment were bigger victims. South Africa lost 300,000 people, 6 per cent of its population to the virus.
In Ghana, then the Gold Coast, the virus affected more women than men and altered gender role in the northern part of the country. In the desolate village of Lorha, so many women were sick that, contrary to custom, men had to grind grain and prepare meals.
Ohadike similarly wrote about how the virus forced dietary change in southern Nigeria, making people to adopt cassava as a staple food.
“The attractiveness of Cassava to so many people is the fact that it requires comparatively less agricultural labour to produce. In periods of stress, where labour may be short, it becomes the crop of choice.”
Gewald catalogued how the Spanish virus caused economic crisis all over Africa, how it affected mining, migrant labourers who fled from endemic centres.
In Namibia, the pandemic was christened as Kaapitohanga, a disease that did not distinguish between white or black.
We quote Gewald again: As in the rest of the world Kaapitohanga, the disease which passes through like a bullet and gave its name to the year 1918, did not respect class, creed or status, and least of all race. It struck German settler, Afrikaner soldier, Herero townsman, and South African administrator with equal vehemence. In its path shops, bus