The Covid-19 influenza outbreak, with its global reach and high mortality rate, has often been likened to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. 

The Covid-19 influenza outbreak, with its global reach and high mortality rate, has often been likened to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Indeed, public health messages on the first pandemic, published by The Sudan Times in early 1919, are painfully familiar, calling for rooms to be ventilated, crowds to be avoided and for anyone with a fever, sore throat or cough to be isolated. In several other issues of the paper, readers can catch a rare glimpse into the spread and devastating effect the pandemic had on the world and in Sudan. 

In news of the pandemic from other parts of the world, The Sudan Times on 22 February 1919 reports that the disease is ‘spreading rapidly’ with an increased number of deaths in Scotland and Edinburgh (NRO-5002759). A message from Sydney, the paper says, reports that influenza is ‘paralysing business in the Commonwealth’ and that as a result, ‘30,000 people have been rendered workless.’ It goes on to describe the streets in Australian cities as being deserted and says ‘Melbourne hospitals are unable to take in any more patients.’

In Sudan, an outbreak of influenza in Atbara is reported by the paper on 15 February (NRO-5002751). The report says that while ‘the epidemic is said to be mild,’ ‘there are a large number of cases’ and that ‘hardly a single house is free from the disease, and the hospital is full with patients.’ Later that week, and in Khartoum, the town’s Inspector, a Mr. R.A Bence-Pembroke is reported to be ‘seriously ill in hospital with influenza and pneumonia’ (NRO-5002759) but he is said to have recovered a few days later (NRO-5002763). On 26 February, the paper carries a more detailed report on the spread of the disease in Sudan; in Berber where it is of a ‘very strong type’ and ‘many deaths have been reported’ and in Khartoum where ‘fatalities are comparatively few’ but where numbers are said to be large, and on the increase (NRO-5002763). 

On 5 March health authorities list general precautions recommended for the Sudanese public to combat the flu (NRO-5002771). These include a warning that ‘a collection of persons crowded together and especially if all are singing at one time produces an ideal condition for the spread of the disease.’ Another warns that ‘mild cases can pass on the disease which may assume a serious character in another.’

As a precaution when one has come in contact with anyone displaying symptoms, the health authorities in Sudan recommend a gargle of potassium permanganate, doses of which are offered free to those who cannot afford the 1 P.T it costs for a quantity sufficient for ‘30-40 gargles.’ The recommendation of this disinfectant together with claims by a Swedish physician, reported in another issue of the paper (NRO-5002747), that Spanish flu can be treated by exposure to strong electric heat over several days, conjures up similar outlandish but more recent claims relating to Covid-19!

‘Spanish Flu at an End’ a small report on 15 March declares (NRO-5002783). It states that as a result of measures taken by the authorities and due to a change in weather, case numbers have been driven down in Khartoum. However, the next small article warns that with temperatures dropping in Sinja, there are fears that with increasing cases of colds and influenza there may become epidemic.

In an article on Spanish Influenza in sub-Saharan Africa, Patterson and Pyle (1) describe the pattern of diffusion of the disease saying it ‘raged’ through sub-Saharan Africa ‘as though the colonial transportation system had been planned in preparation for the pandemic.’ The authors note that an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people died in the region as a result of the pandemic but point out that no records were available on the patterns of diffusion or number of deaths in Sudan.

Although the names of affected places, which appeared in The Sudan Times articles, do correspond to towns along the colonial rail system, without more data, it would be hard to say whether the pandemic in Sudan followed the same pattern as the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.


(1) Patterson, K.D & Pyle, G.F (1983) The Diffusion of Influenza in Sub-Saharan Africa During the 1918-1919 Pandemic, Social Science and Medicine.

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