Book Review: The Pandemic that Killed 180,000 Egyptians

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 22 Aug 2020

Prominent physician and intellectual Mohamed Abul-Ghar explains how the plague, cholera and chickenpox have influenced Egyptians’ health, lifestyle and politics


El-Wabaa Allazi Qatal 180,000 Masri (“The Pandemic that Killed 180,000 Egyptians”), Mohamed Abul-Ghar, El-Shorouk Publishing House, Cairo, 2020, pp.214

The plague that hit medieval Egypt in the late 14th century took a heavy toll on Egyptians and undermined the rule of the Mamelukes.

The Ottomans, who ruled Egypt from 1517 AD, refrained from imposing restrictive measures against the Egyptians' freedom of movement when the country was hit by cholera to avoid inciting unrest in the face of an unpopular rule and to secure the continued supply of crops from Egyptian fields.

The Spanish Flu that hit Egypt in the late 1910s provided impetus to the outbreak of the 1919 Revolution, which started in the countryside with demonstrations against deteriorating social and health conditions. The flu spread as Egypt's healthcare service were declining under the British occupation that had given the preference of such services to World War I troops.

These some of the facts prominent physician and intellectual Mohamed Aboul-Ghar shares in 214 pages of intense story-telling. The book offers the reader a concise history of pandemics that have been recorded in Egypt during the past three centuries. It also offers an equally condensed history of the evolution of healthcare services in modern Egypt – from the rule of Mohamed Ali through the early years of the British occupation to the establishment of the country’s first Ministry of Health in the 1930s.

The book discusses the attack of the Spanish Flu, which was named as such not because it started in Spain, but because Spanish newspapers, which had steered away from the battles of WWI, spoke most extensively about the deadly virus.

According to Abul-Ghar’s exhaustive research, which included going through endless volumes of history and medical records from several world archives and a detailed examination of the issues of the two prominent Egyptian newspapers of the time Al-Ahram and Al-Muqattam, the Spanish Flu had probably arrived in Egypt aboard a ship coming from a European country and from there it found its way first to the big cities, from May to July 1918, and later to remote villages and cities that had been more or less “protected” by the lack of transport.

The virus had spread slowly before picking up an aggressive momentum in October 1918. It killed 180,000 Egyptians out of a population of 20 million.

The recorded causalities, Abul-Ghar argued, are probably not accurate given the figure is only of those who pursued medical care. It was not at all unusual, he explained, for people to feel unwell and not seek medical help. The cause of their death, consequently, was recorded as a heart attack.

In the book, Abul-Ghar blames the insufficient access to medical services in the majority of rural Egypt and the acute poverty that resulted in insufficient nutrition for the spread of the virus and its deadly impact.

Between 1914 and 1917, Abul-Ghar wrote, the average income of an Egyptian worker was around 270 piastres, while a family of no more than four people would have needed double this amount just to cover the cost of their basic nutrition.

However, Abul-Ghar noted that with the spread of the virus, health authorities published health guidelines to contain the spread of what was inevitably a deadly virus.

The guidelines Abul-Ghar found in some dailies of the time are almost identical to the ones promoted 100 years later by the Egyptian Ministry of Health in the awareness campaign against COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to discussing COVID-19.

The Pandemic that Killed 180,000 Egyptians is an interesting read, not just because of what it offers in terms of social, political and medical history, but also because it is about the only book to cover the impact of a deadly virus that hit Egypt at a time when the entire country was taken over by anger against British occupation as manifested in the 1919 Revolution.

Having written a book on the 1919 Revolution, published last year also by El-Shorouk Publishing House, under the title of Amrica wa Thawert 1919 ("America and the 1919 Revolution"), Abul-Ghar had already immersed himself into extensive research of Egyptian history. However, as he wrote in the introduction of his newest release, there is hardly any reference to the Spanish Flu in the works of historians who documented the events of the time.

The book is also interesting because it offers a list of possible other readings on the history and impact of pandemics in Egypt. Some of these possible readings come in the many references that Abul-Ghar used for his book.

Of those titles are Khaled Fahmy’s The Egyptian Revolution of 1919 – the birth of the modern nation, Lutfi El-Sayed’s A History of Egypt: From the Arab Conquest to the Present, Naguib Mahfouz’s Malhamat El-Harafish (The Harafish), and Saad Mekkawy’s El-Saairouna Neiyaman (Those Walking in their Sleep). 


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