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Stories of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic can help us today
Author: Corporate Communication/Sandra Mulder
Published: 28/05/2020

A research project at Stellenbosch University (SU) that commenced in 2018, the centenary year of the Spanish Influenza, has gained much more relevance today with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

The study, “Analysing the spread and severity of the 1918 Spanish flu", aims to analyse the effect of the flu by transcribing records of the Spanish Flu pandemic in South Africa. These records – consisting of, amongst others, death certificates and news clips of 1918 – provide insights into how the flu spread, how the government tried to prevent the spread of the virus and who died from the pandemic.

Prof Johan Fourie, an associate professor in Economics and History heads the research team. Although the project is still preliminary, Fourie says they are already starting to see some trends between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The information can help us understand why certain groups of people experienced higher levels of mortality than others. We find, for example, that previously disadvantaged groups had poor access to medical care during the 1918 pandemic. One lesson for today would be that we should dedicate enough resources to those people who already have poor access to medical care, as they would likely be the ones who will suffer the highest incidence of COVID-19," says Fourie.

 “The Spanish flu did not only expose those inequalities but also exacerbated them," says Fourie. Compared to medical access in the three years before the flu, disadvantaged groups had far worse access to medical treatment during the Spanish flu than before or after. “That is why well-targeted medical interventions for the poorest in society is so critical," explains Fourie.

One of the analysed records belongs to the 18-year-old Wills Bunu and his family from Cimezile, a district south of Queenstown. Six members of the Bunu family and Wills Bunu died in October 1918. They were part of thousands of South Africans who died during September and October leading to the naming of “Black October".bunu.jpg

Wills and his family fell ill after some soldiers carrying the virus arrived at Queenstown after having fought in the First World War.

The joy of farming with his family ended as “Black October" ripped away five of his family members over five days, followed by Wills' three-year-old sister, Canyiwe, and himself two days later. “This data shows, amongst others, the deceased's age, occupation, ethnicity, marital status, as well as the cause of death and how long the person had been ill," says Fourie.

“Wills Bunu and his family's tragic October may not have been for nothing. The preserved mortality records and the analysis thereof can help us learn from the past and how the Spanish flu claimed thousands of lives," says Fourie.

Other information coming from the analysis shows that the most vulnerable people had a higher mortality rate and that in some towns, such as Simon's Town, the disease spread rapidly before reaching a plateau. Fourie explains that the spreading of the flu virus can be related to the different local governments' responses to the pandemic and what procedures they implemented to “flatten the curve" and prevent the spreading of the virus. The information about the formal intervention processes of 1918 comes from local news reports of that time.

“As we transcribe more of these towns' death records and collect more qualitative information that complements our data, we are going to get closer to the answer as to which government intervention was the most meaningful. This information can be of much use today," says Fourie.

Fourie coordinates the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa's Past (LEAP) and the Biography of an Uncharted People project. This research project forms part of SU's department of History, and the Biography of an Uncharted People project that is funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

LEAP is affiliated to the department of Economics at SU and is devoted to the quantitative study of African economic and social history. The Biography of an Uncharted People has enabled collaboration with the department of History, and the scope of work has extended beyond economic history to include social, demographic, financial and family history.

The student researchers involved in the project are from left to right :

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Ms Kelsey Lemon, an MA student in the department of History at SU. She completed her honours degree in History in 2019, focusing on the petitions of Cape women in the late nineteenth century. Her master's study will examine the changing face of public health systems in South Africa after the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

Mr Jonathan Jayes is a master's student in Economics. He studied economics and economic history at UCT before moving to Stellenbosch in 2019. “One thing that struck me about this project is the richness of the data. The data allows observation of trends, by race, sex, town and cause of death. It tells a story about the spread of the Spanish flu," says Jayes.

Dr Elie Murard, who obtained his PhD at the Paris School of Economics, was a research assistant at the Research Institute IZA in Germany for four years. “When I heard about LEAP, I became excited by the idea of joining the promising Biography of an Uncharted People project and the possibility to tap into previously unexplored sources of demographic data," Murard says. 

Dr Young-ook Jang, a postdoctoral research fellow in the LEAP and the Biography of an Uncharted People project, who has completed a PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science with his thesis on migration and ethnic diversity in the Soviet space.

Dr Kate Ekama, a postdoctoral researcher and trained historian, says the Spanish flu project is in line with her research. Her goal is to visualise individuals excluded from history, or who have not received much scholarly attention and link them to the larger narratives of social, institutional and economic change both locally and globally. Ekama's role in the project is, amongst others, to contribute research-based underutilised sources such as contemporary newspapers and Government Gazettes.

Prof Johan Fourie, an associate professor in Economics and History.

Dr Kara Dimitruk is a postdoctoral fellow in SU's department of Economics and received her PhD in Economics from the University of California in 2018. For the Spanish flu study, she helps to document the local government public health interventions using information from historical newspapers.​