MEMORY LANE: HOW SPANISH FLU PANDEMIC OF 1918 GOT TO IGBO LAND
This is a brief and interesting account of how the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 got to Igboland and how the people lived through it.
History: The Past Pandemic in Nigeria.
I’m fortunate to have both of my grand parents alive. I’ve spent the past weeks with them and I have a story to share with you.
My grand parents told me about the 1918 influenza pandemic (Spanish Flu)- caused by a virulent type A virus. It is documented that about 21 million people died from the disease over a 12-month period, and perhaps 200 million at the end of the pandemic.
Grandma said it was called “OKORU OGBUE”. A centralized Igbo name would be “OFEE OGBUO”. The name implied that the disease was very contagious and that infected individuals most often died from the disease.
The disease was introduced into Nigeria by passengers and crews who arrived overseas through ships. Within months it was all over the place- every community in Nigeria. Anecdotal reports from my grandparents and others showed that every community lost between 50-80% of its inhabitants.
Documented reports, though, showed that about 500,000 Nigerians, out of a population of then 18 million, died in less than 6 months, and between 50 and 80% of the population was stricken. Undoubtedly, majority of the cases especially in villages were not reported.
On September 14th, 1918, a ship, S.S. Bida, arrived in Lagos, Nigeria. Some of the passengers were suffering from the influenza. They had boarded the ship in Accra, and on arrival in Lagos, passed on the disease to Lagosians.
The first cases were documented on 23rd September and a few days later the disease spread inland through the railway, appearing in Abeokuta on 1st October and Ibadan on the 5th of the same year.
On 14th October, the disease was brought to Onitsha from Lokoja and in a week or two the entire town and villages in the Onitsha province were thoroughly attacked.
From Onitsha, the epidemic spread to Asaba and all the towns of Western Igboland, causing much panic and consternation.
A report of the Roman Catholic Mission at Asaba stated that the people of Asaba, disturbed by the rumor that influenza was causing havoc, gathered each morning at the Post Office, expecting to hear from relatives who had emigrated to affected places in search of wage labor. One morning, while a large crowd assembled at the Post Office, news arrived that influenza had broken out in Asaba itself and everyone ran home to isolate, the crowd was dispersed. In a few days, Asaba was thrown into mourning as virtually every family had someone to bury.
From Asaba, the influenza spread to Agbor, appearing there on 19th October.
Also from Onitsha the epidemic spread eastward, appearing at Owerri on 25th October, Okigwe and Enugu-Ngwo on the 28th and Aba on the 30th.
Furthermore, the epidemic, having affected the towns on the Eastern Railway, began to diffuse eastward, appearing at Ikot-Ekpene on or about 1st November, Obubra on the 4th, Afikpo on the 5th, Abakaliki on the 7th, Ogoja on the 11th, Obudu about the 11th and Ikom on the 13th.
Every family had someone to bury. Grandma said: “After returning from a burial, all those who buried the dead were required to remove their clothes and burn them before coming into their homes….. But in a few days, they too will get the flu and would die….. When someone die, people cried not because the person died, but because others in the family will die after the burial and so on”.
Traditional medicine men and women died after treating a sick person. Non of the remedies seemed to have worked. But when our grandparents learned that isolation and quarantine was the remedy, the disease was contained.
It was like a war. None of our grandparents went to the markets or farms, because no one does that during a war. They starved, they didn’t visit relatives, they ate cassavas and cassava leaves, they improvised, the government DID NOT provide palliatives, they too, DID NOT EXPECT the government to provide palliatives. They passed through the pain of watching their dead rot away without a burial, only then was the virus contained in 1919- one year after!
Today we have another major pandemic, very, very similar to that of 1918. We know better today, we are more enlightened, we have developed medical sciences. We know that our government SHOULD provide palliatives, but if because of corruption they REFUSE, we should borrow a leaf from our grandparents. Let’s pull through.
You see, the rich and famous brought the virus always, but the poor are more vulnerable and will be hit the worse, because the rich will stay at home and the poor will go out to be killed by the virus or shot by the reckless officers. But whether this pandemic will last less than a year, a year, or more than a year depends on us.
This is like a war. Stay at home to save lives. Obey the Government.
Most importantly, you see those who do not believe that the virus exist, and those who think there should be no lockdown, avoid them because even our uneducated grandparents were wiser than they are.
Ohadike D. C. (1991): Diffusion and Physiological Responses to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 in Nigeria. Soc Sci Med. 1991;32 (12):1393-9
©️Chukwuma K. April 25, 2020