Covid-19: Was the Gold Coast Influenza More Devastating than COVID-19?

There was an Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in the Gold Coast which killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people in Three Month (An earlier one was in 1883-1893 which reached the Gold Coast in 1891).

Over 20 million people died from the 1918 outbreak globally; twice more than soldiers who died in the World War I. More than 65% of that died in colonial Africa.

The Epidemic has been noted by scholars as “the worst outbreak of infectious disease in WORLD HISTORY”, beating European 6th century Plague of Justinian and the Black Death of the 14th century (NB: Epidemic outbreaks was European lifestyle because of chronic poor hygiene).

On 28th August 1918, the governor of Sierra Leone wired a message to the Governor of the Gold Coast stating influenza outbreak in Freetown, and the need to consider all vessels from Freetown as infected. The message was too late. On 31st August the S. S. Shonga, an American vessel arrived in Cape Coast. That was the beginning of the tragedy.

The disease spread like bush fire. Within few days schools and churches were closed down. Business life came to a halt. The Government Boys’ school in Cape coast was converted to hospital. 655 deaths were recorded in the capital by 3 September 1918!

The disease went on rampage: 3rd September it reached Accra; 18th September it got to Sekondi and touched base in Saltpond on 21st Septem, and Winneba on 24th same month. Axim was torched on 25th September and Keta got ravaged on 12th October.

From Ashanti it went north where it was worsened by the dry season. On 19th, 23rd and 25th September Koforidua, Kumasi and Tarkwa, respectively, were infected. Obuasi, Yeji and Bole were hit on 1st, 8th and 26th October, respectively. Wenchi, Sunyani and Kintampo were desolated by the disease on 26th October. Salaga, Wa and Lawra were made death yards by the disease on 5th, 7th and 15th November, respectively.

Tamale and Tumu weren’t spared; they were hit on 12th and 16th November, respectively. In the Northern Territory men were seen doing household chores because almost ALL the women and children were struck.

Official estimate put recorded deaths at 60,000 in the whole country. A great number of scholars however dispute the estimation, and rather have a consensus that it was nothing less than 100,000 deaths. 100,000 deaths out of a total national population of 1,504,000 (1911 census)!! They assert deaths in the Northern Territory alone could reach 30,000.

Factors responsible for the devastation were many. It was EUROPEAN DISEASE for which WE had no immunity. The Europeans too had no remedy for it except quarantine. It would be in the 1950s that vaccines would be developed.

Again, the colonial government had no interest in Native lives or health. Hospitals mostly cared for Europeans and the whole colony had 43 physicians (5 of them were administrators) concentrated where Europeans worked.

Then again, NO EFFORT was made to inform the people about the outbreak (the first government statement was after the outbreak). Nana Ofori Atta who got infected lamented the absence of public education (“Legislative Council Debates”, p.25, Statement of Nana Ofori Atta)

Look for “Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919 in the Gold Coast”

By: K. David Patterson in 1995 edition of the Transactions of Historical Society of Ghana.

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