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Botswana's 1918 Pandemic

So far at least the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has not matched the degree of destruction caused by last century’s worst pandemic - the 1918 Influenza which globally infected about 500 million people, or over a quarter of the world’s population then numbering just over 1.8 billion.

Locally referred to by such names as “Leroborobo”, “Semagamaga” and “Driedag” (Afrikaans for ‘three days’ being the time it was said for the afflicted to either die or recover), estimates of its ultimate death toll range from 17 to 100 million, with the figure of 50 million being most commonly accepted.

With about half of its then just over six million people afflicted, as well as some 500,000 deaths, The Union of South Africa, whose statistics then included the High Commission Territories of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland, was amongst the world’s most heavily impacted jurisdictions.

The existing Union figures, based on local surveys subsequently correlated with 1921 census data, dovetail with an official 1919 “Report on the Influenza in Bechuanaland”, which estimated that about five percent of the territory’s population had perished, with Ngamiland and the Kgalagadi areas being less affected.

In one of the few historical studies of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic’s local impact, John Spears noted that Kgosi Linchwe I sought to limit the spread of the disease within his morafe through a combination of traditional medicine and quarantines. At the beginning of the crisis the Kgabo mobilised his dingaka to “doctor the boundaries” of Kgatleng.

The country-side was thus scoured for herbs to make sufficient quantities of the strongest medicine. According to oral tradition, Linchwe himself ascended Modipe Hill to gather the vomit of its Kgwanyape. After the medicines were prepared, boys were dispatched with buckets to the entrances of each of the roads entering Kgatleng to sprinkle the concoctions on the ground with mosetlha branches.

In terms of quarantine the Kgosi convened a gathering at his kgotla where he decreed that a cordon line was established between Mochudi and Phapane, in which all movement was to be strictly banned. Additional lines were enforced limiting movements between all of the Tribal Territory’s villages.

While the concept behind the village lockdowns was consistent with the best efforts of the period, they were apparently imposed too late to be truly effective. Linchwe, himself, contracted the disease but recovered. Bakgatla doctors are said to have favoured bark from the maloga tree (Vigna lanceolate) in the treatments.

The 1918 Influenzas engulphed the globe in two separate waves. Its initial spread, which was tracked between March and August 1918, resulted in relatively few deaths. Most of the afflicted were said to have suffered from typical flu symptoms consisting of a three-day fever, a cough and a runny nose, followed by a rapid

convalescence. As a result, authorities initially believed that the virus did not pose an exceptional threat.

However, in August 1918 a more virulent strain of the same H1N1 virus was almost simultaneously detected in northern France, Boston, USA and Freetown, Sierra Leone. Its subsequent global advance, spearheaded by World War I troop movements, led to the vast majority of the Pandemic’s regional, as well as worldwide fatalities.

Out of 1,000 people who were infected by the latter strain, about 80% suffered from severe flu symptoms, with 20% developing lung complications that in most cases led to death.

According to Prof. Howard Phillips, both strains of the virus hit our region at almost the same time, but with contrasting impacts. By the first week of September ships from the East African and Middle East warzones had carried the milder H1N1 strain to Durban. From there it rapidly spread across Natal and the eastern Transvaal.

For those in its path, this “Eastern Wave” proved to be a relative blessing as the thus affected population proved to be largely resistant to the second, more lethal “Western Wave” of the virus that spread rapidly from Cape Town in mid-September, after initially being introduced by ships bringing home members of the South African Labour Contingent from France via Freetown. Moving along the general path of the rail lines it quickly spread throughout the Cape Province (which accounted for 63% of all South African deaths), Free State and Western Transvaal along with Bechuanaland, from whence it pushed deeper into Central Africa. During the following month, “Black October”, alone between 150 and 300 thousand in the area perished.

Many at the time believed that the virus thrived in crowded living conditions. Thus, in an October 23, 1918 letter to his superiors reporting on the ongoing surge of deaths, the Protectorate’s Resident Commissioner James Comyn Macgregor expressed his hope that the plague would lead to the permanent breakup of the larger Setswana settlements: “The tendency of the Bechuana to congregate in huge villages, which has its origins in causes no longer in existence, has always been criticised by Government officials and others, but, owing to the inborn conservatism of these people, hitherto without result. This visitation, however, has afforded a painful object lesson which, it is hoped, will not be without its effect on Chiefs and people, and it will be my care to see that they at any rate understand it.”

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