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Was Covid 1889 Botswana's First Viral Pandemic?

Spread by the then modern transport infrastructure of railways and steam ships, the 1889 ‘Russian’ or ‘Asiatic Flu’ is regarded as the first worldwide viral pandemic.

Between 1889 and 1890 the “Influenza” spread not just throughout Eurasia, but also across the Americas and Africa, ultimately killing about one million people worldwide.

The effects of the virus were first reported in Bukhara, located in what was then part of the Russian Empire (now in Uzbekistan), in May of 1889, where up to two thirds of the local population are said to have perished. While the pandemic’s lethal impact is believed to have been greatest between October 1889 – December 1890, there were further global outbreaks in March – June 1891, November 1891 – June 1892, the winter 1893–1894 and early 1895.

By November 1889 the Influenza had reached sub-Saharan Africa as well as western Europe and the Americas. During that month it was reported in Natal. This was followed in January 1890 by cases appearing  in Cape Town, from where it spread across the Cape Colony and into then Bechuanaland.

In his public health report for the 18 months ending in March 31, 1892 the District Surgeon based at Bechuanaland’s then headquarters of Vryberg, Wilson Nugent, reported the presence of an epidemic of whooping cough, diphtheria, and Influenza. In this context, as well as his further concern over the spread of syphilis, he recommended that provisions of the Contagious Diseases Act ought to be enforced at the native locations, “owing to the large number of native servants (employed by the European inhabitants) residing there.”

Bechuanaland’s Administrator, Sidney Shippard, subsequently reported the presence in June of 1892 of “an epidemic of what is commonly called Russian Influenza in the district of Mafeking.”

The District Surgeon further reported on an epidemic of Russian Influenza in 1892-93 focusing on the local the European population, observing that while often fatal to infants the flu was relatively mild amongst adults with six deaths amongst 89 observed cases.

The following year, it was reported that: “Influenza in the form of infectious feverish catarrhs of the respiratory organs was present in the district from August 1894 to March 1895. The natives suffered considerably from Influenza and several deaths came under my notice.”

Given the fact that there was otherwise no systematic reporting, much less collection of statistics, on the health of Bechuanaland’s indigenous population at the time, we shall probably never know the extent of the Russian Influenza’s local impact. From the anecdotal evidence that survives in the colonial reports and elsewhere it would appear to have been relatively mild.

On a whole, the official medical reports during the period show greater

concern over the spread of syphilis and smallpox, a concern due at least in part to the prevailing belief that these diseases could more readily spread from the black to white populations.

This is true notwithstanding the fact that the initially hyper-contagious nature of the Russian Influenza had given rise to panicked headlines throughout Europe and North America. As a fifteen year-old student at Harrow, Winston Churchill, was moved to compose a lengthy poem about the Influenza’s lethal advance (an excerpt):

“Oh how shall I its deeds recount/ or measure the untold amount/ of ills that it has done? From China’s bright celestial land, e’en to Arabia’s thirsty sand, it journeyed with the sun/ o’er miles of bleak Siberia’s plains/ where Russian exiles toil in chains. It moved with noiseless tread/ and as it slowly glided by, there followed it across the sky, the spirits of the dead…”

Had the Influenza mostly run its course by the time it reached Batswana? Alternatively, did the dry air of Bechuanaland prove to be unconducive to its spread? Any answers to these questions may be of some contemporary relevance.

In the past it was suspected that the 1889 Russian Flu was caused by an Influenza A type virus. But, in a study published in 2005, virologists sequencing and comparing human and animal coronaviruses that two virus strains, Bovine coronavirus and Human coronavirus OC43 indicated that they had a  most recent common ancestor in the late 19th century, with several methods yielding most probable dates around 1890. The finding caused the authors to speculate that an introduction of the former strain to the human population might have caused the 1889 Pandemic.

The above conclusion has been further reinforced by findings released last month by Danish researchers Lone Simonsen and Anders Gorm Pedersen who, building on the previous work, also concluded that the human coronavirus OC43 split from bovine coronavirus about 130 years ago, coinciding with the 1889 outbreak of the pandemic. The calculation was based on genetic comparisons between bovine coronavirus and different strains of OC43.

Contemporary researchers have further observed a close correlation in the symptoms and initially rapid spread of the 1889 Influenza and the current COVID-19, including its targeting of the elderly, with limited fatalities amongst healthy younger people, while manifesting itself by runny nose, headache and fever, which could drive the temperature all the way up to over 40. In addition, the 1889 virus could cause severe inflammation in the chest, while speeding up pre-existing respiratory diseases.

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