Ethiopia – The Swift Arrival and Departure of the Flu Pandemic – 1918

Where can we go from your spirit, full of fear.

And where can we flee from your face, o Creator, death?

We cannot go up to the heights,

We cannot go down to the lowlands,

For there is the plague.*

And Haile Selassie, not yet emperor, wrote in his autobiography:

After this, from the 1st Hedar to the 30th (10th November-9th December), there broke out at Addis Ababa and in all the other provinces of Ethiopia an influenza epidemic, and in the city of Addis Ababa alone more than 10,000 people died. But I, after I had fallen gravely ill, was spared from death by God’s goodness.

Richard Pankhurst, son and grandson of the leaders of the suffragette movement, and a great scholar of Ethiopia, gathered information on the Flu Pandemic from survivors and from accounts by foreign residents, making it the first of the many epidemics in the region to be recorded in any detail, and with a valiant attempt at providing statistics.

Haile Selassie (at the time Ras Täfäri Mäkonen) fell ill on August 27th as part of the first wave of infections, which did not have an exceptionally high death toll and was not initially recognized as part of the global pandemic.

In the autumn, there came a second wave, introduced perhaps from Aden, which spread very rapidly, as people fled to remote areas where they hoped they would be safe. By November it became clear that this was “Spanish influenza” and the situation in Addis Ababa became critical. One witness told Pankhurst:

Just as a brother would walk over the corpse of his brother on a battlefield so nobody troubled to bury the dead by the road- side. They simply walked by. There were no more graves in the churchyards so it was decided that people would be buried by churches that would be built later.

He went on to describe the progress of the disease as “a forest fire spreading in dry grassland.”

By the middle of the month, Gerald Campbell of the British Legation was to write:

With the suddenness approaching that of a volcano the epidemic was upon us. On November 13th we were all proceeding with our work as usual; from November 14th onwards the Gebbi was closed and the Government ceased to exist. Chiefs were either fleeing or hiding in their houses, postal and telegraphic services were suspended, the town was deserted save for funeral parties by day and by thieves by night, three out of our five doctors were dying and the fourth was ill; the Legations had to give up work and set to tending the sick and dying among their communities.

The death toll seemed to be less high among the Europeans than among the Ethiopian and Indian communities, as Campbell told Minister Wilfred Thesiger, father of the explorer, who was away on leave. However, the following day, revising his opinion, he was warning him not to return, adding:

Influenza epidemic widespread especially along railway. Incubation only 24 hours and immediate precautions are essential otherwise results fatal. On Railways precautions are impossible. All work here suspended.

In November, the epidemic reached a climax. According to clinical descriptions and memories of those who recovered, the disease showed the usual symptoms, but with a terrible headache, a cough and, above all, total exhaustion. Those who could rest completely from the onset of the first symptoms tended to survive. Those who did not, developed pneumonia and died.

There were very few doctors, several of whom died from continuing to work while ill, leaving an Indian and Frenchman, of whom Thesiger wrote:

…even when suffering himself from influenza, he refused to give in and continued his work, although, as a doctor, he was fully conscious of the risk he ran. Even when most overworked, Dr. d’Antoine never failed to respond to applications for advice or assistance. . .and his work throughout was beyond praise.

Other members of the community heroically did their best to help, including a Parsi photographer, a Swedish missionary and Major Dodds of the British Legation, who took it upon himself to do what he could for the British Indian and Arab communities and, as a result, was very highly thought of by them. There were, incidentally, no medicines available, beyond alcohol (mainly whisky and cognac) and eucalyptus leaves, the local remedy.

Various witnesses interviewed by Pankhurst describe the complete paralysis of the Ethiopian capital, one of them adding:

We were in a state of desperation. You couldn’t visit friends. You couldn’t get a mule or horse because your servants also were ill, or were afraid of being ill. There was a real panic…..Social life came to an end completely, absolutely.

It is very clear from the accounts that the psychological effects of the epidemic were almost as serious as the disease itself. One problem, mentioned in many other accounts of plagues, (for example Miss Tully’s) was burial arrangements and the lack – or expense – of coffins.  Because of these difficulties, there was great danger of new epidemics, especially cholera. In addition, the effect of bodies being abandoned and eaten by dogs, hyenas and vultures was, obviously, deeply demoralizing.

The disease spread rapidly throughout the region – to the Highlands, to Eritrea, to Somaliland and on in the directions of Kenya and the Sudan, where it caused the death of Sayid Mohamed Abdullah Hassan, leader of the Dervish Movement: known to the British as the Mad Mullah – a translation of the epithet given him by the Somalis wadaad waal. It then burnt itself out with extraordinary rapidity, vanishing as swiftly as it came.

One informant Aläqa Kenia, attributed this to supernatural intervention, claiming that the acute mortality ended on the feast of St. Mary, November 29th and the few available statistics, mostly from records kept by the Swedish missionaries and the various Legations largely bear this out.

I remember one evening there was terrific shooting all over Addis Abäba from about eight o’clock until until midnight, and the people said they were shooting to disturb the evil spirits …..those days if shooting started it spread all over the place….you wouldn’t believe it, but the situation was much better…..The people thought they were shooting at the Devil.

On December 3rd, Mrs Thesiger had telegraphed Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to warn her husband again not to return, but the very next day, she could correct her message – the epidemic was abating.

By the middle of December, the epidemic was effectively over and Abel, another informant, recalls:

I remember my servants came and said you could get bread – that was perhaps three or four days after the shooting – and then vegetables came. It took about a week, perhaps a fortnight, until life became more or less normal, for the shops to open, until you could get aspirin, etc.

The local consensus, supported by Ras Täfäri, seems to have been that the epidemic was a punishment for the sins of the people and its sudden ending was simply thanks to the intervention of “Our Lady, Mary”.

This material is almost entirely taken from the excellent article by Richard Pankhurst, The Hedar Bëseïa of 1918, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (July 1975), pp. 103-13

* A qené or improvised poem in Ge’ez from M. M. Moreno, Raccolta di Qené, Roma, 1935, pp. 40-1.

Many thanks to Ralph and Sarah Lee for suggesting this.

N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.

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