What educational policy lessons can we learn from the 1918 Global flu pandemic to help in our current COVID-19 crisis?

The world is currently experiencing a global event that will no doubt cement its place in the history books. A time when most countries on the planet are closing its borders and forcing people to stay inside. A time when the economy is rightfully taking a back seat and allowing governments to focus on saving lives. A time when doctors, nurses, petrol attendants, pharmacists, supermarket tellers and other essential services become our heroes and heroines. A time when the world’s leaders are being called upon to make bold, drastic and sweeping decisions that are literally between life and death. A time that future generations will look back on and critically discuss who did what, why and when.

I am always proud to be South African, but today, I am particularly proud to be counted as part of Mzansi. Proud because my president has shown tremendous courage and resolve, despite the incredible pressure to keep economic markets open. Proud because he has taken the extraordinary step of issuing a national lockdown, which in reality proves to me that he values human life more than a perceived neoliberal economic agenda. All I can say to this is Viva Cyril Viva. Vamos por mas!

In the same light, Mrs Angie Motshekga, South Africa’s Basic Education minister issued a statement on the eve of South Africa’s national lockdown where she indicated the steps that would be taken to help South Africa’s approximately 12 million learners during this extraordinary event. She stressed in her address that the education sector along with the religious sector carry the biggest risk for the virus to spread. In other words, it is in society’s best interest for schools and places of worship to close its doors in an effort to flatten the rising curve of COVID-19 cases.

Although extraordinary, upon closer inspection, this is actually not a unique moment in our history. Nor is it by any degree unprecedented. South Africa has faced this type of challenge in the past. The ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918 was our first real exposure to a virus of this magnitude. This blog post is therefore intended to locate the current COVID-19 pandemic amongst past global health disasters, specifically the 1918 global flu pandemic (also incorrectly known as the Spanish flu[1]) in an effort to extrapolate lessons for us as a society. I will be using a Foucauldian-genealogical approach to investigate and explore the current pandemic.

What exactly is a Foucauldian-genealogical approach?

Michel Foucault was one of our best and brightest philosophers, historian of ideas and social theorists. His approach to history was always to serve a double function. Firstly, to socially critique the event/story and secondly to provide an alternative analysis of that event/story (Given, 2008, p. 394). By using the Foucauldian-genealogical approach in this short essay, I am able to track the 1918 global flu pandemic by means of a genealogy. This enables me to socially critique and analyse similarities and differences for our current COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1918 Global Flu pandemic

‘The great flu pandemic’ began in 1918 and is estimated to have killed over 50 million people worldwide. This pandemic is reported to have had three waves, the first (circa September 1918) was a mild round of lethal infections, the second (circa December 1918) was a far deadlier round with an estimated 70% of total deaths occurring in this wave. The last wave (circa August 1919) was another milder round, with fewer casualties. Symptoms of the 1918 flu included bleeding from the eyes, nose and ears, high fevers, crackling sounds coming from the lungs, turning blue because of a lack of oxygen and eventual drowning in one’s own mucous. Back then, medical professionals did not know how to treat this illness and could only offer enemas, aspirin, Epsom salts, whiskey and bloodletting (Battles, 2018)! It is no wonder then, that the death toll rose as much as it did.

The origins of the virus remain unclear, but it was first noticed in military training camps in the USA as these troops prepared for World War 1 (ExtraCredits, 2018). It soon spread to every nation around the globe, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind it.

The flu’s arrival in South Africa

On the 31st May 1910 South Africa became a union. This meant that the four regions (Cape of Good Hope, Transvaal, The Orange Free State and Natal) were now official provinces of the union of South Africa. This union was uniformly run by a joint white minority of Afrikaaners and British who completely ignored the political voices of Blacks, Indians and Coloureds. When the Spanish flu arrived in 1918, the white minority had no idea how to safeguard their own populations, never mind those of the Black, Indian and Coloured populations.

The flu first reared its ugly head in Durban around September 1918, it was carried there by soldiers returning from campaigns in the Middle East and German East Africa – who had no doubt contacted the virus from European soldiers also in the region (Phillips, 2012, p. 69). My great-grandfather, who lived close to the Durban/Transvaal border, would often tell my mother and her siblings of how ‘Black October’[2] had killed his five brothers and left him brotherless. From Durban the virus spread into the interior, ravaging through the Witwatersrand, where thousands of miners and prospectors were searching for precious metals. The second wave arrived in Cape Town shortly thereafter and spread with even more disregard for human life across the Transkei, Orange Free State and up to the Transvaal. It had now covered the entire country, killing an estimated 300 000 to 350 000 people in South Africa – the fourth worst-affected country in the world (Phillips, 2018). 

Unlike COVID-19, young people were most at risk during the 1918 pandemic. Researchers say this is because young people back then were most likely the sole bread winners for their families, which meant if they contracted the virus, they could not take time off to rest and recover. Another reason is that the war effort meant that many young people in the military would have weakened immune systems, be tired and often not able to fight off any infection. These reasons offer compelling evidence as to why younger people were more susceptible to the Spanish flu.

How did the Spanish flu affect education in 1918 South Africa?

The first and most obvious consequence is that of the dwindling population. Phillips (2012, p. 83) notes that a national census in 1925 shows “the new cohort of children entering primary school was remarkably smaller than in previous years: quite simply, their numbers had been thinned by the non-birth of the usual number of children six years earlier, in 1919”. The number of ‘missing’ learners would later play a devastating role in South Africa’s economy. The economic, societal, personal and emotional toll of these ‘missing’ learners is immeasurable.

The second effect relates to the number of learners orphaned as a result of the pandemic. Phillips (2012, p. 84) estimates that this number is in the hundreds of thousands. ‘I was taken in [by relatives] as their child,’ recalled one flu orphan in 1965. ‘My [four] brothers and sisters were scattered. We never got together again,’ recalled another. Interestingly, in most African, Indian and Coloured families such incorporation into extended families was the norm, but among whites it seems to have been far less common (Phillips, 2012, p. 85). As a result, white communities across the country came together to provide orphanages and boarding schools for those white learners affected by the flu pandemic. Phillips (2012, pp. 84-85) notes that “in effect, the Spanish flu epidemic had transformed the provision for white orphans in South Africa out of all recognition.”

Thirdly, schools across the country were closing to stop the spread of the virus. In Bloemfontein a local newspaper reported that all schools across the city were instructed “not to re-open after the short vacation”. However, there was no uniform decision from Louis Botha (the Union’s first prime minister), instead each province seemed to have had decentralised control over how to handle their education sectors. Some schools closed, others did not. This disjointed approach was certainly part of the reason for the virus’ drastic spread.

Phillips (1987, p. 220) records that “in the first weeks of November 1918 schools across the country were re-opened for those children whose parents were ‘desirous of sending them to school’”. This again indicates a clear disregard for the seriousness of the pandemic. Parents were fed up of having their children at home and decided to risk their very lives in order to get their children out of the house and back into school. A risk that unfortunately did not end well for many families.

Fourthly, children and learners who were of colour were treated vastly different and inferiorly to those who were white (Phillips, 1987, p. 214). White children with flu were sent to various hospitals. Temporary creches – for those white flu orphans not taken in by private families or those whose families were too ill to care for them – were also opened. For children of colour, however, no such provisions were made. They were told to rest at home (wherever that might be) and recover by drinking the soup which was provided for them by the local district or church. Occasional visits from a doctor or a nurse might have brought some relief, but this was not to be counted on. In fact, Phillips (1987, p. 217) mentions that the town’s assistant Medical Officer undertook the medical inspection of local white schools, whereas no such inspections were carried out in other schools. School-feeding programmes were initiated in poorer white schools and milk was supplied free to needy white pre-school children and expectant mothers. None of these were provided to people of colour. The historical record does show that the church did much to assist the Black, Indian and Coloured populations during the 1918 flu pandemic (Phillips, 1987, p. 218), but this was not nearly enough as was needed. The obvious inequality had created a proverbial crater that people of colour were not able to climb out of or benefit from. Instead, they were to be buried in it. Literally. An entry in the National Archives (Müller, n.d.) records the following, written by a clergyman:

“African flu victims were buried in a fresh mass grave every day between 2 and 4 pm, irrespective of their religion. 25 bodies were placed in it, each in a blanket. Then we sang, I said prayers, and then a thin layer of soil was thrown over them. Then came the next 25 bodies. Usually 100 bodies were buried in this way every day … but sometimes it was 125 and once 150. That required 6 consecutive services.”

Fifthly, the authorities, especially those in charge of the education sector seemed to be oblivious to the threat at hand. Quoting a fictious local doctors’ advice, a member of the Education board declared that “there is no real cause for alarm… If one considers the number of cases that have been sick, the death rate is really trifling” (Phillips, 1987). This nonchalant attitude can be partially attributed to fake news and is a stark warning to the effect that fake news has on a population.

What lessons can we learn from the 1918 flu pandemic?

Each and every life matters.

The 1925 census shows us that the “missing generation” of learners – who should have been born in 1919 – was sorely missed. South Africa’s economy never fully regained its vigour and potency post this 1918 tragedy. Today though, we are warmed to see that President Ramaphosa has a high respect for life and is not willing to see any deaths (even though history tells us there will be). This places a high affectional value on South Africa’s human capital. If the COVID-19 death rate is lower than its 1918 predecessor, Human Capital Theorists will take comfort in the fact that it will mean more humans for the production of capital in the economy.

Ubuntu is not exclusionary.

South Africa already has an extremely high rate of orphaned children and child-reared homes, mainly due to HIV/AIDS and TB. What we can learn from the 1918 pandemic is to be inclusive of our efforts to help each other. Orphans are orphans, no matter what colour or culture they belong to or what virus or disease has ravaged their family unit, or what so-called ‘class system’ they belong to. We are to take care of the vulnerable in society. Deitrich Bonhoffer[3] is quoted as saying that “the moral test for any society lies in the condition of its children” (Giroux, 2015:10). We must learn from the exclusionary policies of 1918 to include all our children in our efforts to safe guard and nurture them.

Top-down Authority (with clear consultation) – in times of crisis – saves lives.

The educational authorities in 1918 had no clear lines of authority, everyone was tasked with doing their own thing. Fast forward to today, and it is clear to see who is at the helm of our proverbial ship. President Ramaphosa has made clear and decisive decisions to close all schools. He no doubt consulted all the relevant stakeholders, but in the end, he and he alone took the decision. This decision filtered down and was implemented by the relevant ministers of education. There was no confusion. Anyone disobeying the president’s order will be held accountable. We can therefore clearly see that top-down authority in times of crisis saves lives, in contrast to those in authority during the 1918 pandemic.

Fake news kills.

In 1918, the spreading of false narratives was not uncommon. Today, unfortunately the problem has become incredibly difficult to navigate due to social media and the explosion of technology. When fake news spreads, people are at risk. Especially during a pandemic. We must not fall for these false narratives in any way, shape or form. We must instead call them out for what they are… an attempt to kill, steal, delay and destroy. If false narratives take hold of society in our current fight against COVID-19, we are likely going to delay our response, destroy ourselves and kill off any chance of lowering the rising COVID-19 curve of cases in the country. This virus is dangerous and we must heed the call to stay inside and under lockdown.

Teachers were, and still are, the backbone of the economy.

During the 1918 pandemic, schools in the USA were decimated and had to close – some were forced to close for up to 15 weeks (Stern, et al., 2009, p. w1067). During this time, teachers were asked to come up with creative ways of ensuring that teaching and learning continues. Many states came up with resourceful ideas, but the city of Los Angeles was light years ahead of everyone at the time. Stern et al (2009, p. w1075) describes the city’s brilliant idea, “L.A. created mail-in homework modules for high school students so that they could complete assignments at home. In addition, during this “enforced vacation,” teacher courses were set up at State Schools, and approximately 1,500 teachers took classes to expand their subject knowledge and pedagogical skills”. This was truly a city ahead of its time! It was teachers who took the initiative to come up with this creative way of ensuring students continue to learn.

This is considerably apt for us today as online learning and distance education will certainly become the norm for many South Africans during the lockdown period and beyond. South African educators must follow the example of our 1918 L.A. predecessors and come up with creative ways of teaching our learners. Many teachers have already begun to do so. Educators must also recognize that despite a national lockdown, we have the perfect opportunity to upskill ourselves online and improve our knowledge bases. We must, if we are to achieve excellence in our schools.

This leads me to my final related point on educators. We are irreplaceable and essential to learning, even in a time of online teaching. Artificial intelligence can never replace the human affective, intuitive, emotional and empathetic touch of a true teacher. The Los Angeles classes of 1918 are testament to this fact.

May we learn from our past and triumph in our future. Wishing you all a safe and healthy few weeks ahead!



Works Cited

Crowley, U., 2009. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography Genealogy. [Online]
Available at: http://mural.maynoothuniversity.ie/3024/1/UC_Genealogy.pdf
[Accessed 28 October 2019].

Phillips, H., 2012. Epidemics: The Story of South Africa’s Five Most Lethal Human Diseases. Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Phillips, H., 2018. In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish’ Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa. 2nd ed. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society.

Phillips, H., 1987. The Local State and Public Health Reform in South Africa: Bloemfontein and the Consequences of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. Journal of Southern African Studies, 13(2).

Müller, E., n.d. Acc. 172, vol. 2, ‘Lewensloop’, 37–8, Pretoria: National Archives repository.

Stern, A., Cetron, M. & Markel, H., 2009. Closing The Schools: Lessons From The 1918-19 US Influenza Pandemic. Health Affairs: At the Intersection of Health, Health Care and Policy, 28(6), pp. w1066-w1078.

Battles, H., 2018. Listening to a pandemic: Stories from the 1918 flu come alive in a new podcast series. Science Mag, 21 September, p. 1207.

ExtraCredits, 2018. The 1918 Flu Pandemic. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhyKYa0YJ_5BZ3gQleTk-PJqIejFf4Rh2
[Accessed 24 March 2020].


[1] It is incorrectly known as the Spanish flu, because Spain was the only country that did not censor the media’s coverage of the virus. Other nations did not want to bring attention to the negative effects that this virus was having on their war efforts and therefore decided to censor any coverage of the flu pandemic.

[2] The ‘Spanish flu’ was known locally as ‘Black October’ because it was during October 1918 that the second deadlier wave of the virus had begun its descent across the country.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Theologian, spy and resister who fought against Hitler and conspired to kill him. He was an ardent fighter for social justice and wrote extensively on related issues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpeNuz4FqX8)

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