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Updated Mar 17, 2020

COVID-19 has already begun wreaking havoc on South Africa’s economy as the number of confirmed cases continues to grow. The total number of cases stood at sixty-two on March 17. Howard Phillips, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, finds parallels between the current situation and how the country handled the 1918 influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu.

Amid the horrors of World War I, the 1918 flu pandemic caused the death of at least fifty million people worldwide, more than the casualties from the war itself, and South Africa was one of the worst-hit countries. Three hundred thousand South Africans died within a six-week period. As Phillips notes, the flu virus made its way to South Africa via two troop transport ships returning from England. They made a refueling stop in Sierra Leone, which was already battling the disease. Shortly thereafter, crew members and troops aboard the ship began displaying symptoms of flu, and after the ships had docked in Cape Town the virus spread to medical personnel at the quarantine sites.

Though the returning men were quarantined, the examinations were brief and not thorough by any means. Only three days after their quarantine began, the troops were allowed to board trains to go home. The flu spread rapidly among the passengers and from village to village throughout the country, including the most remote provinces.

The main lesson that can be learned from this, Phillips argues, is that the critical first step in managing the coronavirus pandemic today is rigorous and thorough examinations early on, including extra care paid to those who are asymptomatic carriers, lest the virus spread before the health authorities and professionals can coordinate their services, take inventory, and stock up on necessities.


Why It Matters

Africa has been fortunate thus far to avoid the infection rates seen in Italy and China. In China, the origin of the outbreak, national health authorities have stated they’ve managed to reduce the infection rate down to fifty per million people, whereas Italy is still at four hundred per million. France, Spain, and Germany are expected to face rates within the same range as Italy, jeopardizing the health of millions. As countries around the world begin to impose various forms of lockdowns, quarantines, and border protections, Africa must continue its preventative measures and maximize prevention. Lessons learned from Ebola outbreaks have led to the development of efficient infrastructure and protocols, but South Africa especially should set standards for other African countries to follow, given that President Cyril Ramaphosa is the current chairperson of the African Union. It’s wise to heed the lessons learned during the 1918 flu pandemic and not repeat the mistakes made back then.

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