The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 was said to have been the largest pandemic the world has ever known, and conservatively speaking infected between 20 and 40 million people. Today that particular influenza strain is known as H1N1.
The first infections were reported towards the end of WWI (1914-1918) in Germany and Austria, and from there spread to Spain. In Spain more than 8 million civilians were infected in May 1918 alone. This exceptionally high infection rate led to the epidemic being called the Spanish Flu. From Spain it spread throughout the world along shipping routes by troop carrying ships. This also explains why men between the ages of 20 and 40 years accounted for more than half of the casualties.
In South Africa more than half of the population was infected and 140,000 people died. The first cases were reported in Durban on 14 September 1918, then Kimberley on the 23rd, Johannesburg on the 25th, followed by Cape Town on the 25th.
In the case of Cape Town, the infection could be traced back to the troop carrier Faraslav that docked in Table Bay on 13 September with sick soldiers on board. At the peak of the pandemic Cape Town lost 4% of its population in a four week period. Doctors usually treated patients with quinine, while the rest of the population resorted to a number of home remedies. Newspapers suggested people take cinnamon and lemon juice in hot water just before going to bed. Renosterbos shoots steeped in wine or brandy was another favourite. Children also wore pouches filled with garlic around their necks.
Communities were compelled to mobilise and provide support services, and Paarl was no different. At the time Paarl did not have a hospital, so tents were erected on the Faure Stadium sport field, and these tents served as a makeshift hospital. Soup kitchens were opened at Paarl Station, Van der Poel Square and on Market Square – most were manned by volunteers. At these central points people could get milk, soup and medicine.
Medicine was provided by the Paarl Municipality free of charge. In Suider Paarl the soup kitchen may have been sponsored by H Jones & Co, a canning factory. Paarl’s mayor, Alf Devine drove to Cape Town to collect medicine for the sick. Harry Pickstone of Simondium donated crates of lemons.
Source: Paarl Post 19 October 1918; Paarl Post 4 September 2008