History of Pandemics in Ethiopia

By Abel Merawi

Epidemics-EthiopiaApril 6, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- In talking about the isolation of Ethiopia from the world, the British historian Edward Gibbon has said, “Ethiopians slept nearly a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.” Accordingly, one would assume such a country to be free from the pandemics that threatened the world. This is a common yet mistaken assumption shared by both foreigners and Ethiopians. The lack of documentation and inaccessible is also another contribution to this view. In truth, pandemics are not new to Ethiopia for they have managed to creep into the country time and again. As Richard Pankhurst argues, a variety of influenza has occurred as far back to at least the 17th century, and some coincided with international outbreaks. For instance, the overlapping of time and symptoms indicates the deadly Hedar Beshita, or "disease of Hedar," is similar to the ‘Spanish flu’ of 1918.

Of all the plagues, influenza seems to have a long-standing history in Ethiopia. However, it came in different guises and was mostly given the generic name Gunfan. The word influenza is first mentioned in1698 by the German scholar, Job Ludolf, in his Amharic-Latin dictionary as gunfan or "Catarrhus" and gunfanam or "Catarrhis obnoxious." And the first cases of pandemics in Ethiopia occurred in 1706 and 1747. Ludolf cites the royal chronicle of Emperor Iyasu I that mentions an outbreak of gunfan in 1706 which killed an unspecified number of people. It forced the emperor’s son Takla Haymanot, who fell ill, to leave his residence for isolation. As the chronicle of Emperor Iyasu II states, Gondar was hit again by various plagues of gunfan in 1747, which claimed many lives to the point of making it impossible to bury the dead. Although these were the earliest accounts of epidemics, sadly, they were not the last ones.   

Almost after a century, Ethiopia was hit by various recurring plagues. As Pankhurst mentions, the beginning of 1836 marks the spread of a ‘cerebral fever’, killing many inhabitants of Mahdara Maryam in Begemder. This forced Empress Menen to flee the town. In April of the same year, an epidemic had ravaged the port of Massawa. We find the first medical account of an Ethiopian influenza epidemic by a French physician, Dr. A. Petit, sent for a scientific mission by King Louis Philippe of France. Petit writes in 1839 of an outbreak in the town of Adwa, and argues that the people have reported of more deadly pandemics, which coincide with international outbreaks of 1833 and 1837. Petit gives a detailed description of the epidemic which began with ‘feeling of discomfort, lassitude in the limbs, weakness and a kind of inability to move.’ He explains how the pain progress to be unbearable by attacking the whole facial area and causing inflammation. In the final stages, Petit explains, “a greater or lesser feeling of discomfort in all the limbs, but particularly in the legs and shoulders.” The plague occurred for a second time after two months with some varying manifestations, though all the symptoms point to influenza.

It seems like influenza has been an unwelcome guest in Ethiopia, lingering for centuries. It has been lurking in various parts of the country to claim its victims. As the French Physician named Dr. R. Wurtz states, influenza had devastated the Ethiopian population by the end of 1889. He cites, Alfred Ilg, the Swiss adviser of Emperor Menilek’s who claimed more than 20,000 soldiers were sick in the army and most of them had died. Then in 1908, a Georgian Physician called Dr. P. Merabashvilli, known by locals as Dr. Merab, states an influenza epidemic has occurred in Addis Ababa. He was the first and only person to open up a pharmacy in the country, and in his study called Medecins et midecine en Ethiopie, he argues the situation became "aggravated, thanks to the negligence of the natives who do not throw themselves on the doctor until they have exhausted all the means." The history of Ethiopian epidemics progressed in this manner and it devastated the country when the famous ‘Yehedar Beshita’ occurred.

The most shocking case of influenza occurred in Ethiopia in 1918 in the Ethiopian month of Hedar (October-November). The disease was named by the month of its occurrence and called Yehedar Beshita. Evidences suggest that it was actually similar to the “Spanish flu” which devastated the world during WWI. Mirgissa Kaba writes that the Spanish flu entered Ethiopia by train through the Gulf of Eden. The estimated death toll from Yegedar Beshita is around 50,000 people in the country. Addis Ababa was hit the hardest with a death toll of around 10,000 people. The end of the epidemic has also led to other social changes by making people more conscious of hygiene.  

The recurring epidemics were so disastrous to the nation that it forced Emperors Yohannes and Menelik to ratify public health legislations. As Kaba argues, the recurring epidemics of influenza and smallpox have contributed to the frequent political unrest and famine in the country. The most famous public health legislation passed during the outbreak of Yehedar Beshita. The Emperor ordered every household on Hedar 12 (21st of November) to clean the garbage from houses and burn it. This has helped to mitigate the spread of the disease and through time became a ritual. Up to the present day, Ethiopians burn their garbage on the 12th of Hedar, on St. Michael Day, with the assumption that it will cleanse the country of any plague.

The culture and tradition of Ethiopia do not always help to identify and handle epidemics. The practice of relying more on spiritual and traditional medicines, have proved to be both helpful and disastrous depending on the specific plague. Pankhrust and other scholars argue that the various forms of influenza are mostly related with evil-eye, mech, or gunfan. Dr. Merab speaks of Ethiopian popular cures as tena adam (ruta montana), sheep’s tail, various plants like bahir zaf or bryony boiled to be inhaled while covered in shemma (toga). This tradition of labeling and curing diseases has continued to the present day.

Let us end with the most effective tradition of Ethiopians in the fight against plagues, namely; physical distancing or isolation. From the recorded case of epidemics during the rule of Emperor Iyasu I in 1706 to Yehedar Beshita and even to the present day, people who have contracted a plague have isolated themselves. In most rural areas, when a family is affected by plague (Werershign), they are made to remain in their house while neighbors provide them with all the basic necessities. Presently, we are dealing with COVID-19. There is no traditional or scientific cure to protect us. This novel virus must be taken seriously and public health regulations must be strictly followed. The only effective measure we can take is isolation, specifically, staying home. Thus, let us learn from the long-standing tradition and fight this pandemic by physically distancing ourselves.  


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective

Crisis Profiteers

You Can Make a Difference

Rule of Law for a Free Society


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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