I’ve had a number of people suggest making links between the current virus situation and that of 1918. Some saying they’re similar, others disagreeing. Many say we’re in unprecedented times, I’m not so sure. I’ve commented before on how comments in one situation are almost identical to another (the 1899-1902 2nd Anglo Boer or South Africa War and the East Africa campaign of 1914-18 in particular). This one resonates with comments circulating during 2020 across numerous countries.
On 5 November 1918, six days before the armistice, South African Governor General Lord Buxton wrote to Jan Smuts in England with news from South Africa.* Prime Minister Louis Botha was on his way to England in preparation for the peace discussions (Smuts had earlier written to friends saying he knew the Sunday before the armistice was the last Sunday of the war).
There is going to be trouble over the Epidemic. The Health Department of ‘Interior’ was extraordinarily stupid and wanting in foresight, pedantically allowing the Influenza to come in from the Transport (Native) where it had been raging; and further throughout the epidemic, it has shewn want of energy, courage, and resource, in dealing with the position.
The ‘Health’ powers of the Government are of course lamentably limited, but Watt ought to have thrown himself with energy into the affair, and done all, and indeed more than he legally could, to cope with such a grave position as that which has arisen.
At that stage in South Africa, there had been 20,000 deaths. Buxton was also lamenting the fact that the opportunity had gone to pass a Public Health Bill and to sort out Housing.
This is one of a number of instances where the Spanish flu was mentioned, all resonating with comments I’ve heard and read in recent times. I’ve also seen similar comments expressed in relation to the Ebola outbreak, the 1980s HIV/AIDS and other significant crises during the past 100 years.
How do we, as historians, therefore determine how ‘unique’ a situation is? Should we be trying to decide whether our time is worse than that experienced with the 1918/9 pandemic or the Ebola outbreaks? Where does Foot and Mouth and BSE management regimes fit in all of this? The situations prevailing for each crisis has been different, although commonalities can be identified. Does this mean that we can draw conclusions that people in 1918 felt the range of emotions we encounter today? Were there the same concerns about people flouting what was seen to be essential practice to contain the spread? I haven’t read enough of the situation 100 years ago to be able to answer this confidently, but I don’t recall having seen much documented in the diaries and memoirs I have worked with where the flu is mentioned. For those writing diaries and commentaries on the current time – how do you plan to give future readers a clearer picture of what you’ve been through so they can distinguish between your feelings and those of other similar circumstances?
Perhaps as part of the Great War in Africa Association medical project some more might come to light as doctors explain and set out what was groundbreaking for them 100 years ago. Looking back, medical knowledge had made huge leaps and bounds – Norman Jewell talks of his first x-ray machine in Africa, plastic surgery and the manufacture of artificial limbs occurred and there were discoveries around tropical diseases. When compared with complaints around medical issues in the 1899-1902 war and Kitchener’s engagements in Sudan and other conflicts dating to the Crimean war, I’m astounded as to how medical knowledge developed, yet today we find similar questions being asked and concerns raised. How is it that we find ourselves in a similar situation today?
Can we compare? or do we simply acknowledge – it was different and when explaining the past make reference to ‘in memory’ events to help our readers understand.
* From Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts Papers, vol 3, p684,