Plague and prejudice: it’s happened to us before

  • 1918Pandemic
While the COVID-19 pandemic may be novel, it’s by no means unprecedented. From the bubonic plague to the Spanish flu, widespread diseases have come and gone, something both South Africa and its Jewish population know only too well.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 09, 2020

“South Africa is no stranger to pandemics,” said Howard Phillips, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town. “It has a long history of being exposed to and suffering under pandemics. If one tries to get a handle on epidemics in our country, it becomes apparent that pandemics have things they do recurrently.”

Author of Plague, Pox and Pandemics, Phillips explored South Africa’s pandemic history in a fascinating online talk hosted by Jacana Media last week. He suggested that pandemics have characteristically done the same things over the centuries, and that the coronavirus is no different.

“Pandemics have a tendency to reveal the underpinnings of society,” he said. “They show starkly the faultlines of society, and the way in which COVID-19 has underlined inequality in our society is true of every pandemic historically.”

Pandemics also tend to reveal underlying attitudes. “Pathogens project prejudice and reveal underlying beliefs about others in the face of disaster,” said Phillips. “At a time of pandemic, we want to know where it comes from and who is to blame.”

An acceleration of trends and patterns is also common to pandemics, whether these trends were already developing slowly before the outbreak or are new and wholly unexpected.

Additionally, pandemics have a habit of triggering a zeal for reform, especially in public health. “They show up health systems and their inadequacies,” said Phillips. “Politicians respond by stressing the need to reform. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s push for a restructuring of the economy illustrates this.”

“We should look to past epidemics because they alert us to areas in which we should be vigilant. They show what the current pandemic is likely to produce.”

Even our public-health system owes its existence to a previous pandemic. According to Phillips, the bill which created a public-health system was driven by the outbreak of Spanish flu in 1918, killing 300 000 South Africans within six weeks.

“Dr Mitchell, the man tasked with drafting the bill, went up to the Union Buildings and tried to work,” says Phillips. “There were so many interruptions, he went home, sat at the kitchen table, and drafted the country’s first public-health bill.”

The bill was finally introduced in January 1919. Between 1918 and 1919, an estimated 50 to 100 million people died of the pandemic globally.

If South Africa is familiar with pandemics, its Jewish communities have certainly had their share of virus-related affliction as well. Whether under the plague outbreak of 1901 or the Spanish flu of 1918, the Jews of South Africa suffered considerable loss of life and a complete overturning of religious life.

Although records are scant, research by retired specialist physician Naomi Rapeport and cardiologist Colin Schamroth found that 58% of the total deaths of Jews in 1918 took place during the period of the pandemic. Their research identified that victims were on average a decade younger than their non-influenza compatriots who died in the same year, and two-thirds were males.

“More South African Jews died in the pandemic than did South African Jewish soldiers during World War I. The residual effects of the pandemic on the Jewish community were major, and must have had a lasting effect.”

Accounts of the ordeal are difficult to comprehend. In an interview conducted by Phillips with Jenny Stern, a survivor of the Spanish flu, a grim portrait is painted of Cape Town Jewry living under the pandemic.

“Every shul was open. People went. But people tried to keep away from one another,” said Stern. “We had the streets cleaned with an old-fashioned water cart, and they sprayed the city with water and something in it. It was terrible, terrible. Every shop in Cape Town was closed. You couldn’t get anything.

“There was nothing, nothing to buy. The doors were open. You could walk in and take everything.”

The earlier plague of 1901 was no different. Gwynne Schrire, the deputy director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Cape Council and veteran writer, has researched extensively the effects of the plague on the Jewish community of Cape Town. She discovered that her great-grandparents had lived through the pandemic, though her family never spoke of what transpired.

“In his memoirs, my great-grandmother’s son mentions the plague, but does not mention that his mom had it,” she says. “It was only when I had verses written by his father translated and took them to a doctor that I realised that she had the plague. If her son didn’t know, neither would her grandchildren.”

Schrire found that her great-grandfather took her to Frankfurt (instead of their native Lithuania) because the stigma and gossip of their neighbours had angered him.

Sadly, their experience was not unlike that of Jews across the country. Antisemitic sentiment spiked dramatically, and Schrire says the plague was blamed on the outsider, on “the blacks, Asians, and dirty verminous Jews”. As a result, there was the hasty passing very soon afterwards of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1902.

“Equating Jews with dirt and disease made the climate more favourable for passing an act the following year to limit entry to the Cape of these dangerous, disease-harbouring aliens,” says Schrire.

“A speaker at a protest meeting said, ‘This colony… was infested from right to left with undesirable aliens.’ The subconscious choice of the word ‘infested’, one used for vermin, sends a clear signal.”

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