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Economic and Social History Blog

24. Economic History at the frontier (11-4-2020)

Economic History at the frontier (11-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

This morning Johan Fourie, ‘our man in Stellenbosch’, mailed me the report he and his team has written, at the request of the South African Presidency, about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 and its impact on the country. South Africa was badly hit by it, an estimated 6% of the population died, which is much more – perhaps more than double – the global average. Tragically, the virus was probably brought to South Africa by black soldiers who had fought in the trenches of the First World War, and blacks were over-represented among the victims. Fourie and his team have now collected micro data of those affected – actually of all deceased – in six different towns, and is able to shed new light on the spread and the incidence of the virus. Whites, for example, are over-represented in the first wave, but this is probably related to the fact that nobody was expecting such a pandemic and therefore all were unprepared for it. The white population however seems to have been able to isolate themselves successfully, or get access to better health care, as in the second wave they largely disappear. A parallel with the current epidemic is that men are overrepresented among the deceased. What is really different is that the main victims are between 20 and 40 years of age – the backbone of the working population – and that the elderly are much less affected (a stark contrast with corona). They also give an overview of the policies implemented by cities – the state government was severely criticized because it did next to nothing

What is striking is that the differences in impact of the flu between various cities and regions were so large. Sometimes there is a convincing explanation – some cities were hubs in the railway network, for example, and therefore saw large numbers of people move in and out. Being isolated helps a lot – and on the ‘empty’ South African countryside many were in a natural state of self-isolation. But that makes the puzzle of the strong impact of the Spanish fly even bigger. Not unexpectedly, the report argues that much additional research has to be done to answer all relevant questions. It would be interesting to find out if the South-African experience fits the American case, where it was found that cities and states that intervened early and decisively – introducing strict limits on the mobility of people, for example – fared much better than cities and states who did not do so.

It is good to see economic historical research contributing to such highly relevant societal debates!

Continue reading: The greylag goose, the memory of nature and the usefulness of economic history (13-4-2020)

See Johan Fourie’s blog: https://www.johanfourie.com/2020/07/13/the-paradoxes-of-pandemics/