Museum records pandemic

The Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 killed 50 million people world-wide. Simon's Town as a naval port was hard hit.

We are living in anomalous times: and Simon’s Town Museum has been quick off the mark to invite residents to help document them.

Museum manager Cathy Salter-Jansen said the museum has begun a research project to record the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact locally. 

“We want to record the voices and experiences of our communities in Simon’s Town, Glencairn, Ocean View, Masiphumelele, Grassy Park, Heathfield, Retreat, Gugulethu and anywhere that Simonites find themselves – even if that is overseas,” she said.

The idea was a request from their sister organisation, the Cape Town Museum, with a view to a collaborative exhibition.

She says the museum is inviting stories, thoughts, videos, photographs, appropriate memes and information in digital forms mostly through social media platforms and emails. “We have also had two WhatsApp accounts of life in lockdown in Ocean View,” she said.

The collection will form part of Simon’s Town historical archive.

The closest experience to this time can be found in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic which killed 50 million people worldwide.

Audrey Read of Simon’s Town Historical Society shared information about the Spanish flu taken from “Nonqqai” November 1918 – a newsletter of the South African Police.

The pandemic was called appalling, eclipsing anything of an infectious nature ever seen before. It was documented that every class of the public was affected, with all little services considerably curtailed and in some cases absolutely closed down altogether.

The newsletter said that both chemists in Simon’s Town at the time took strain but remained open, as did the chemists in Kalk Bay and Muizenberg.

District surgeon (Dr T.P. Hayes) was credited with being the only civil medical man in Simon’s Town, and he held out right through the epidemic.

The newsletter described every business as having somebody affected and many naval employees died despite the best of medical care. The entire post office was infected and the boy scouts took over delivery of correspondence and telegrams. “The whole organisation of society in these parts is paralysed and it beggars description to see persons being picked up dead or in a dying condition in the streets, roads, trains. All schools, bioscopes and public meetings have been closed down for the present – probably the right thing to do.”

Howard Phillips is emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town. He is co-editor of The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: New Perspectives and author of Plague, Pox and Pandemics: A Jacana Pocket History of Epidemics in South Africa and of In a Time of Plague: Memories of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa. He wrote an article for an American-based magazine War on the Rocks in which he asked what the dire Spanish flu calamity teaches about how to effectively combat Covid-19. In short, he said, it warns us that when a highly infectious epidemic breaks out, a country cannot act fast enough before the disease enters the runaway stage. Missing this window of opportunity makes curbing it thereafter extremely difficult – if not impossible.

On the face of it, Dr Phillips said the two pandemics seemed to have much in common. Both originated in what is termed a “zoonotic spillover,” the transmission or crossover of a virus from an animal reservoir to humans (influenza from aquatic birds and SARS-Cov2 probably originally from bats). Both were and are highly infectious, being spread through the air by coughing or sneezing (by aerosol or droplet infection), or by touching infected surfaces. Both produced symptoms like difficulty in breathing, fever, coughing and sneezing, while both could open a pathway to pneumonia and death.

He said that just like the Spanish flu, there is currently no preventive vaccine for Covid-19, and in both cases treatment was primarily supportive and aimed at alleviating symptoms.

Both pandemics swamped existing health facilities. However; Dr Phillips noted that they also had significant differences, notably their incubation times. While the incubation period of the Spanish flu was very short, a day or two, that of CovidD-19 can stretch to a fortnight, facilitating its unnoticed, asymptomatic spread or “stealth transmission” as it has been termed.

He also said that the first two waves of the Spanish flu were not caused by an identical influenza virus with the latter strain being responsible for most of the 50 million deaths attributed to the pandemic.

He pointed out that in 1918 the existence of viruses was not yet known, and there was no overarching international health authority to collect, collate, and circulate data. “World War I was still under way, putting strong military and political pressure not to make the extent and gravity of the pandemic known lest it alert the enemy to possible military weakness,” he said.

This is in sharp contrast to the situation in 2020, with the World Health Organization, its International Health Regulations platform, and states that are willing to implement draconian measures in order to safeguard the health of their populations and economies. “They may be involved in total war, as their predecessors were in 1918, but the world now faces a war against a virus, not humans,” he said.

Email your contributions for the Simon’s Town Museum documentation to