The unequal impact of the Spanish flu in South Africa

Johan Fourie, Jonathan Jayes. Show Author details

Influenza Pandemic Masked Typist
Typist wearing a mask during the 1918 Influenza pandemic

The 1918 influenza was one of the largest epidemics in history, killing at least 50 million people globally. This figure was exceptionally high since the death toll of Covid-19, by comparison, is around 20 million. As with today, the incidence of pandemic deaths back in 1918 were not random, since some countries suffered more than others. South Africa was one of the most heavily affected, with around 6% of the country’s population dying – or around 300,000 people.

The incidence of influenza was not only distributed unequally, but it also exposed existing health inequalities – and exacerbated them. That was the hypothesis we wanted to test in a paper that was published in World Development. To do so, we used almost 40,000 death certificates from the Cape Province of South Africa. These certificates – like that of Wills Bunu, who died on 26 October 1918 – provide a wealth of information about the deceased, such as race or birthplace. We focused on 15 districts and transcribed death certificates between the years 1915 and 1920, to allow us to measure pandemic mortality relative to earlier mortality. That is how we could expose the increase in health inequality. 

The Spanish flu arrived in two waves in South Africa. The first was mild and spread rapidly through Natal and the Transvaal, notably on the gold mines. Few deaths were, however, recorded. The second wave arrived in Cape Town with soldiers returning from World War I, and then it spread along the railroad. October 1918 became known as Black October, and the figure below shows why: there was a sudden increase in deaths from this disease after 10 October, around two weeks after the virus had arrived in Table Bay. In addition, the graph plots ‘Spanish flu’-deaths by race. It should already be evident that black residents had the highest incidence. In addition, our results confirm the age-specific mortality pattern of the influenza, with many deaths not only at the very young and old, but also the 20-35 year range.

Daily Mortality Influenza 1918 - Queenstown South Africa

Measuring health inequality in South Africa

How can we measure health inequality during the 1918 influenza pandemic? We took a novel approach using information from death certificates. Since each was to be signed by a health official, and in many cases this did not happen, we use the signature of a health official as a proxy for access to medical services. This is, of course, not a perfect proxy; it may be that an individual had frequent visits to a doctor, but then died while travelling. The signature also does not suggest anything about the quality of medical treatment; it is very likely, for example, that the deceased individual never met the doctor who signed their death notice while they were alive. Therefore, it is best to see this proxy as a simple measure of the likelihood that an individual would have had access to medical services  (from a long-run perspective, see this related article on the topic).

Using this information, we calculate the likelihood of accessing medical services by race and gender, which is presented in the graphs below. The first thing to notice is that white residents are most likely to have access to a doctor; on average, eight in ten had access to formal medical care during (and outside of) the pandemic period. Coloured residents (‘coloured’ being a specific, non-derogatory term for one of South Africa’s four population groups) had slightly poorer access, around seven in ten, on average. Black residents fared much worse, as only around three in ten individuals on average had access to formal medical care. This evidence clearly shows that the South African society was already, by the 1910s, a highly unequal society.

The second remarkable feature of our calculations concerns the decline in access to medical services around the time of the pandemic. Not everyone’s access decreased equally, though: white women experienced almost no decline in access to a doctor, while coloured and black women experienced significant declines in access to medical services.

Inequality healthcare - South Africa Influenza 1918

Explaining health inequalities during a pandemic

In our research, we test several reasons for these larger inequalities, on both the demand and supply side. We show that social networks matter; the likelihood for a death in the family increase four-fold for black households, compared to two-fold for white households. There may simply have been fewer family members to request medical services when everyone fell ill. Wills Bunu, the young man whose death notice appears above, lost five family members in October before he himself died.

On the supply side, it might be that (white) doctors simply resisted seeing coloured and black patients. To investigate this, we use another novel measure to identify whether doctors were more likely to misreport coloured and black patients’ duration of illness. We find no evidence of discrimination using this technique, which accords with anecdotal evidence of the time. Following Black October, Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, a leader in the coloured community, was happy to express ‘the thanks of the coloured community to those citizens who had so ungrudgingly and unselfishly helped them during the Epidemic’.

The most likely result is that income – the ability to afford medical services – best explains the widening gap. Wealth residents are likely to have had not only higher incomes but more savings. We also note that urbanisation may have contributed; coloured residents, in particular, often lived in in dense urban settings where medical services may have been particularly constrained during pandemic times.

What is clear is that the influenza caused existing large racial differences to be exacerbated. It is an important lesson for today, when evidence of similar widening racial gaps are emerging.

Further information:

  • This article is based on the following publication: Fourie and Jayes (2021). Health inequality and the 1918 influenza in South Africa. World Development, 141.
  • The picture associated with this article was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Author details

Professor (Stellenbosch University)
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PhD Student (Lund University)