What is in a name?

While the world was engaged in World War I (WW I), in March 1918, a deadly strain of flu struck North American army training camps with thousands of troops getting ready for deployment to Europe. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the outbreak of flu-like illnesses was first detected in 100 soldiers situated in Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas City, Missouri. Within seven days, the infection rate had increased to 500. Although the outbreak is commonly known as the Spanish flu, it is known to not have originated there. The pandemic had a deadly impact on all nations, the crowded conditions of war and international deployment of troops increased the global rates of infection and overwhelmed health care facilities everywhere.

What was the impact?

Globally, the pandemic infected 500 million people (one third of the world population at the time) and resulted in 50 million deaths. Findings by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that mortality rates were high for the following age groups:

  • Younger than 5 years old
  • 20 – 40 years old
  • Older than 65 years old
  • Those who where fit and healthy in the 20 – 40 years old age group.

There was no vaccine available to cure the infected, as a result, preventative measures such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limiting large social gatherings were used to curb the spread of the pandemic. In addition, those who were infected and survived built immunity.

By May 1918, hundreds of thousands of North American troops travelled across the Atlantic Ocean every month for deployment in WW I. Crowded trenches and cramped conditions in army base camps made for perfect conditions in hosting and spreading of the flu infections. This affected all countries that were engaged in the war. Where the troops travelled, so did the virus. The first outbreak wave that appeared in Kansas, had abated after a few weeks.  The second wave that came as a result of the global movement of the troops, proved to be the most fatal. In North America, the infections’ peak took place between September and November, with 195 000 deaths being reported during the month of October alone. In total, 675 000 lives were lost with most deaths taking place during the peak infection period.

We are survivors

The pandemic affected all people irrespective of class, race or creed.  In South Africa, here are some comments from people in the front line  of the pandemic at that time;

Missionary in the Transkei District (Eastern Cape)  “corpses lying in the same hut as the living, who are, themselves, too weak and too indifferent with pain, to try to move them…cattle, sheep and goats straying, unherded, and no one to secure the milk, so badly needed, from the uneasy cows: hundreds dying from sheer hunger and exhaustion

Senior Medical Officer at the Kimberly army base camp reported with dismay on October, 8, 1918, “All Pneumonia cases so far have ended fatally. In some cases within 12 or 14 hours from commencement of illness…”

Resident of  West End, Cape Town describes what he saw during the October,8, 1918 special burial “some heart-breaking sights – a brother pushing his bicycle with his dead sister wrapped in a sheet … a husband pushing a wheelbarrow with his wife’s body in a homemade box

Globally, children were left orphaned, families widowed, in some cases all family members perished.  In the wake of all this devastation, 1 billion people survived.  They would go on to imagine and invent a world that today is home to over 7,7 billion people.  This blog looks at a few of the globally recognized names that were alive during the pandemic for inspiration to go for the things we are passionate about, so that we can be part of the future solution post the COVID-19 pandemic.


Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966) was 16 years old when the 1918 flu pandemic started. He lived with his family in Kansas City, Missouri where the first wave of the outbreak was identified. At high school, he became the cartoonist of the school newspaper, drawing patriotic pictures about World War I. At 16, Walt Disney dropped out of school and tried to join the army but was rejected because he was underage.  He joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver and was deployed to France to chauffeur Red Cross officials. He decorated the outside of his ambulance with his cartoon artwork and even had some of his work published in the army newspaper Stars and Stripes. When the war ended in October 2019 he returned home. Walt Disney went on to become a pioneer of the American animation industry and innovated the film production of cartoons. He was an entrepreneur, animator, writer, voice actor and film producer. He is also famous for producing the cartoon character Micky Mouse and the development of theme parks.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) was 48 years old when the first outbreak occurred in June 1918, Bombay, India. It is believed to have been brought by ships carrying troops returning from war.  By August 1918, the infections had spread throughout the country. At the time, most parts of the country were experiencing famine-like conditions due to monsoons that had brought less rains than expected. As a result, people were left weak and underfed, which forced them to move to the densely populated cities in hopes for improved livelihoods. The wetter rural areas that had received the expected amounts of rain were found to have less prevalence of infections. The flu pandemic had a devastating impact on India. It had the greatest number of deaths globally with the number estimated between 12 and 17 million people. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the millions of people who were infected and recovered. He was an anti-colonial nationalist. Following the pandemic, he led a successful campaign for India’s independence from the colonial British rule using non-violence methods, and in turn, he inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was born in the village of Mvezo, Umtata, Eastern Cape Province (at the time, it formed part of the Transkei District, Cape Province Union). The Cape Province accounted for over 62% of the deaths  during the pandemic.  In South Africa, the  turn of the 20th century, increased mobility of people due to an expansive railway network. This led to thousands of black African labourers being recruited from rural villages across the country for manual labour at the various gold and diamonds mines. Many young men left their families in the villages for employment at mines in the bustling towns. The living quarters provided by  the mines were generally poor, where the workers lived in cramped conditions with poor sanitation and hygiene. The then white minority ruling party, enforced social segregation of blacks Africans from other races (white, indian and coloured). Despite the government’s segregation policy, the pandemic infected all people irrespective of colour, social rank or creed. In general, the government was ill prepared to deal with the pandemic.  The impact of its social segregation policy was evident in the lack of resources that were provided for black African communities to adequately deal with the scourge.

A study, by Howard Phillips into the impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on South Africa, found two main causes for the spread of infections in the Transkei District:

  • Firstly, the 2 700 South African Black Native Labour Coprs that returned from WW I duty between 16 and 30 September 1918. The troops when departing from Sierra Leone had 43 confirmed cases of influenza, which at the time the government did not deem as serious.  The troops with a high probability of being infectious, upon their return, travelled by train to their homes in rural villages without being quarantined; and
  • Secondly, infected black African workers who hurried back to their homes in rural villages fleeing the highly infectious centers in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Kimberly.

The infections spread like wildfire in the rural villages of the Transkei District. Within 3 weeks, the spread of infections had completely overwhelmed the District which by then had limited medical and food supplies, health care staff, and no capacity to dispose of corpses. Sadly, the recruitment of black African labourers to the mines continued despite the prolific spread of infections. It is estimated that 500 000 people died (of which approximately 80% was black Africans) making South Africa the fifth country with the greatest number of fatalities.

Nelson Mandela was 3 months old when the flu outbreak arrived in South Africa. He would become a globally recognized anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist.  He served as the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and was the country’s first black head of state under democratic rule.

What great leaders, entrepreneurs, activists and philanthropist will emerge from the COVID 19 pandemic? Why not you? Within our own spheres of influence, let us emerge with the courage to shape the future for the better, building better cities that provide equal access to essential services such as medical care, water and sanitation and housing to all its citizens. In this globally connected world, we are only as strong as our weakest link.




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