Both the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic draw stark similarities in terms of the effects on the higher education and learning space. Recently, Dr Bronwyn Strydom, a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, analysed the similarities between both pandemics and drew a comparison of their effects on UP students. The article compiles snippets from UP’s archives about student experiences during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic in South Africa. The Spanish Flu epidemic is dated to have reached South Africa in September 1918. Back then, UP was known as the Transvaal University College (TUC) and was subjected to campus closure, much like the one we witnessed in March 2020. The Spanish Flu epidemic caused numerous deaths and infections, to the point that October 1918 became known as “Black October”. The rate of infections soon stabilised in November, so the epidemic’s effects were short term.
The onset of the Spanish Flu in 1918 allowed the Council of TUC to exercise emergency powers, and as a result, the academic year was suspended early, with exams being postponed to 1919. Dr Strydom writes that “this meant a disruption of only a few months towards the end of the academic year. This is quite [in] contrast to the disruption of most contact classes and normal campus activities for three quarters of the academic year in 2020.”
Based on consensus found in the first Volume of the university’s history, it was agreed that the campus atmosphere was very tense when the Spanish flu broke out. Especially between English and Afrikaans speaking students as the tension continued escalating to the point where a British flag was burned on campus grounds. It is suspected that the closure spurred by the Spanish Flu epidemic aided in easing the volatile tension. Dr Strydom also includes a student’s testimony of what it felt like to experience the Spanish Flu epidemic:
“But in the year 1918 the whole world fell under the Spanish Flu and the population of Pretoria was also affected. By the Summer of 1918 the situation was so bad, that it was impossible to continue with classes.”
Numerous students were affected, but, documents suggest, no residence students died, although many were seriously ill. Groups of students, which were not yet infected, joined teams of volunteers which undertook visits to mainly the poor areas of the town, to try and help people affected by the disease. Doctors and nurses were insufficient and there was very little that could be done, except to provide food (usually soup) and to try help in emergency cases. Those who were ill were advised to lie still and under no circumstances to try to wash or bath. Among students who still remained behind in the residences there was a general spirit of fatalism, as students felt they could only wait and see what happened.
Another phenomenon that was reciprocated across both pandemics was the concept of campus closure alleviating impending stresses of exams and tests. In her article, Dr Strydom relays a testimony of a student in 1918 who expressed great relief towards campus closure as it would allow him to polish up his Chemistry. When classes resumed in 1919, only 300 students enrolled for the year from 1918’s count of 325 students. An editorial written by the editor of The TUC Student Magazine read:
“There are again young forces which have joined us, a number of new students. We wish them a warm welcome. There are also old forces which have disappeared from the scene; among them are those who due to illness—the results of the terrible epidemic—had to leave. A rapid recovery we wish to them all.” (Sourced from ‘Two pandemics, one hundred years and the University of Pretoria: A brief comparison’, Strydom)
Compared to the current COVID-19 pandemic that has led to over a year of campus closure, the Spanish Flu pandemic only had fleeting effects to facets of student culture, student gatherings and classes. Despite a temporary suspension of classes in April 2020, classes were still able to continue online but access to campus is still non-existent for a majority of students.