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Mutating History

As we begin a new year still in the shadow of the SARS-CoV-2 or “Covid-19” virus we can hope and pray that emerging vaccines will ultimately deliver better times.

Meanwhile, there is a continuing need to slow the spread of Covid-19 transmission through collective discipline, while being mindful the appearance of new, mutated, strains the virus. We have faced similar challenges. HIV treatments have evolved to address drug resistant strains. The 1918 Influenza, or “Spanish Flu” as it was commonly albeit inaccurately known, further underscores the need to track viral mutation.

During the First World War (1914-18) up to 4,000 Protectorate Batswana enlisted in South African auxiliary units serving in Namibia, East Africa and France, alongside hundreds of thousands from elsewhere in the region. Yet, the conflict is, perhaps, better remembered locally for the massive die-off that accompanied its ending rather than its wartime military tribulations. By November 25, 1918, when the last German army surrendered at Mbale, Zambia, the whole of Southern Africa was already being convulsed by the 1918 Influenza, which is estimated to have ultimately infected over a quarter of the world’s population, with the figure of 40-60 million being commonly accepted as an estimate of its final death toll.

The 1918 Influenza swept across globe in two waves. While hardly benign, its transmission between March and August 1918 was less lethal than what followed. As a result, many believed that its H1N1 virus did not pose an exceptional threat. However, in August 1918 a more virulent strain of the virus was detected whose advance was spearheaded by end of war troop movements. Both H1N1 strains hit South Africa at almost the same time, with contrasting impacts.

By the first week of September ships from the Indian Ocean had carried the milder strain to Durban, from where it expanded across eastern South Africa. For those in its path, this “eastern wave” was a relative blessing as the affected population proved to be resistant to the second, more deadly “western wave” that proliferated from Cape Town in mid-September, after being introduced by two ships bringing home from France discharged troops of the South African Native Labour Contingent.

Advancing along the rail lines the western wave initially swept through Botswana along with much of South Africa, before pushing deeper into Central Africa. In “Black October” between 150 and 300 thousand perished in the region. To many the Influenza came to be known as “driedag”, Afrikaans for “three days,” which was said to be the time it took for the afflicted to either die or recover. Stories are told of passengers boarding trains, only to arrive dead at their destination. With about half of its then

approximately 6.7 million people afflicted, as well as a final death total of up to 500 thousand, the Union of South Africa was among the world’s most heavily hit jurisdictions.

Union death toll estimates dovetail with the Bechuanaland Protectorate’s 1918-19 Annual Report, which noted:

“In October, 1918, the disease known as Spanish Influenza broke out in the Southern Protectorate, and, spreading rapidly, eventually affected the whole Territory except the western Kalahari and the Ngami littoral; the native population suffered, more or less severely, in proportion as they were concentrated in large communities or scattered. The mortality, all round, amongst them, from the disease and its complications, has been estimated at between 4 and 5 per centum”.

Reporting on the surge of deaths in October 1918, the Protectorate's Resident Commissioner expressed his belief that the “visitation” had “afforded a painful object lesson”, which would hopefully lead to the long sought-after break-up of the large royal settlements. Otherwise, besides cancelling their anticipated end of war celebrations, the colonial regime’s response to the pandemic was to let local communities fend for themselves. In this context, Batswana across the Protectorate tried to stem the virus through movement restrictions and quarantines, while resorting to both indigenous and western medicine.

By the end of the year Kweneng’s Resident Magistrate reported an 80% infection rate and 400 deaths in Molepolole. A sharp decline in agricultural output for the 1919-20 season was subsequently attributed to labour shortages due to influenza.

What happened to the 1918 virus? Reports from Kweneng correlate with contemporary data from Europe and the USA, which suggest that rather than disappearing the virus continued to mutate as it morphed into a strain of seasonal flu. While it was observed that “there has been no recurrence' of epidemic influenza” during 1920, in 1922 “influenza” was once more included among the prevalent diseases in district. A 1922 LMS report for Molepolole observed that the return of influenza had killed four out of five children in the mission school. Annual Reports for the period provide further evidence of the sporadic presence of influenza persisting elsewhere in the Protectorate culminating in an apparent upsurge in 1930: “There was an epidemic of influenza throughout the country in October and November, Serowe and Gaberones being the most severely affected. Though 762 sought treatment from Government Medical Officers, this number is only a fraction of the total cases, as the greater proportion occurred in the native villages and were not brought to the notice of the doctors.”

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