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Lagos, palm oil, a pandemic past and present

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, isn’t the first pandemic to upend Nigeria. Over 100 years ago, “The great pandemic reached Nigeria toward the end of September, raged during October, and declined rather abruptly in November.” This is how the colonial report on Nigeria for 1918 succinctly describes what happened. The pandemic and its impact on trade, healthcare, security and agriculture is mentioned several times in the report.

In what seems like a replay of a century-old script, the novel coronavirus, which authorities had a two week window to prevent from being imported, is spreading across Nigeria. Local transmission is growing in clusters. Our health system can’t cope if the number of people with disease rises exponentially

In a 2015 research, Managing the Epidemic: the British Approach to 1918-1919 Influenza in Lagos, Jimoh Oluwasegun, a historian, gives a detailed account of the pandemic in Lagos. He recounts how sanitary authorities failed to contain the virus early. It arrived in Lagos on ships carrying people infected with the influenza pandemic. It spread rapidly and disrupted socioeconomic life – churches, mosques, schools and cinemas were closed and public gatherings banned, farms were abandoned and food prices rose.

By the time the pandemic ended, thousands of Nigerians had died. In Lagos, 1,200 people (1.5 percent of the population) died from the disease – an unending number of burials were held, it stretched gravediggers and undertakers.

The virus hitch-hiked on ships from Europe to the port of Lagos. Port officials in Sierra Leone, where it is estimated to have snuffed out 4 percent of the population, warned Lagos ahead about the outbreak saying it was safe to assume that every ship arriving Lagos was infected.

On 14 September 1918, three crew members of SS Panayiotis were admitted at the infectious disease hospital in Ikoyi. Another ship, SS Ashanti, which arrived soon after, had six infected passengers on board.

The outbreak went berserk when all 230 passengers onboard SS Bida which arrived Lagos that same day disembarked the ship unexamined. No questions were asked about the travel history of the ship as quarantine rules prescribed – all merchant ships anchored in Lagos were infected by mid-September.

The influenza pandemic was more contagious than COVID-19. A customs clerk with symptoms of the virus went to consult a native doctor, he died a week after, the day he was moved to the infectious disease hospital. It was later discovered he had contracted the virus from a woman who was on SS Bida. A case was reported everyday of September, the outbreak was rapid and the colonial government was unable to control it. Hospitals were swamped in an hour. “The disease was widely scattered and that no measure of quarantine was likely to stop its progress,” the Public Record Office of 1919 noted.

Tracking contacts of recent travellers was difficult, the number of people that had to be traced overwhelmed Lagos. From the records of those who had been in contact with the passengers of SS Bida it was obvious the disease had spread across Lagos. No one was spared: customs clerks, Nigerians and foreigners, men, women and children had within a week contracted the disease from those who imported it. The colonial healthcare infrastructure was inadequate, no one understood the virus. It shocked a colonial government that prided itself for solving the malaria problem in the 1890s. Unlike malaria the influenza pandemic was imported.

In the first two months, 250 people who were tracked on arrival at the port were dead. The overall number of reported and confirmed deaths in Lagos during the 1918 pandemic may be an underestimate; many deaths were concealed from the authorities, families and neighbours out of shame, stigma, fear and taboo.

On September 25, it was announced that the whole of Lagos was infected. An Observation Hospital to treat cases on demand was opened in Ikoyi. For the colonial government containing the spread was priority not caring for the victims – the cost of which was more than preventing the contagion.

Jimoh Oluwasegun says the economic lifeline of Lagos (and the country) had to be protected. According to the Public Record Office of 1919, a medical officer warned that, “it was necessary to interfere as little as possible with shipping and prevent a panic in the neighbouring towns and villages upon which the food supply of Lagos depends.” Which is why as the pandemic raged, everything was done to let ships dock in Lagos even though it was through them the disease was being imported into the country.

If a ship and its crew members were suspected to be infected they were quarantined offshore while temporary shelters were provided at the port for passengers before moving them to the infectious disease hospital in Ikoyi.

Despite the collaboration among Nigerian and colonial medical professionals, leading newspapers, traditional and religious leaders, distrust of the colonial government and the sanitary and medical policies introduced complicated the slow and ineffective response of the sanitary authorities. Once the disease and the number of people dying from it was made public many Lagosians panicked and tried to avoid the house-to-house visits. Many, afraid of being isolated in the “disease asylum”, tried to leave Lagos but only spread the virus further.

Lagos was the leading port in colonial West Africa and Nigeria was the largest exporter of palm oil and palm kernel, demand for both had soared because of World War I. Nigeria made £9.5 million from exports in 1918, the highest since it was amalgamated four years earlier – 61 percent was from palm oil and palm kernels.

Export revenues from palm oil and palm kernels were the main source of income for the colonial government. Then as now, Nigeria relied on a single commodity. Before World War I, palm oil was exported to Liverpool to make soap, and palm kernels were shipped to Germany to make cattle feed and the oil extracted from it was sold to the Dutch who made margarine from it.

Palm oil linked Nigeria even more to the world during WWI. The world was at war with Germany, whose merchants controlled the palm oil business in Nigeria. With the German merchants out of the way, the Ministry of Munitions in Britain did all it could to secure a steady supply of palm oil and palm kernel.

Glycerine, a by-product from processed palm oil and kernels, became a critical ingredient for making the munitions that Britain was using during World War I. It was important that the supply of this essential raw material did not run out.

Demand for palm oil and palm kernel ended abruptly in 1920. Many big and small British merchants and companies were affected, subsistence farmers, and their families, in the South East and Niger Delta were affected too. Cocoa and groundnut, transported on the railway infrastructure that was built during WWI, became the new exports of Nigeria – an example of the importance of economic diversification and infrastructure development.

In what seems like a replay of a century-old script, the novel coronavirus, which authorities had a two week window to prevent from being imported, is spreading across Nigeria. Local transmission is growing in clusters. Our health system can’t cope if the number of people with disease rises exponentially.

Meanwhile, the economy isn’t diversified, there is no infrastructure to spur growth in other sectors after the crisis subsides, demand for oil has collapsed, the truce among OPEC, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other oil producers is temporary and tenuous. The health of an oil-dependent, debt-laden, poverty endemic, highly informal economy with an army of unemployed youths is even more at risk.

Today, as in 1918, doing whatever it takes to save the economy is equally as important as saving lives from the contagion.

READ THE PREVIOUS EDITION OF THIS COLUMN:  

Nigeria’s economy and the symptoms of coronavirus

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