March 12, 2020, will be remembered in Seychelles as the day the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the islands. The newly discovered virus, firstly reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on March 11. At the time of writing one million, confirmed cases have been recorded.
For the majority of us, this is the first time we live through such situation, though stories of epidemics have been told to the different generations over the years. As we look at the 250th anniversary of the island nation, SNA looks at the history of epidemics in Seychelles – 115 islands in the western Indian Ocean.
The arrival of the first settlers in August 1770 opened the islands to an inflow of French and their slaves as well as to frequent ships calling in with merchandise and human cargoes as slavery was a lucrative trade at that time. Thus a gateway for diseases was opened.
The first documentation of a disease outbreak on the islands was recorded in the early 1800s. “This was a cholera outbreak, which was brought in from Mauritius by the slaves and their masters,” local historian Tony Mathiot told SNA.
Lepers’ colony on Curieuse Island from 1829 to 1900 and again from 1937 to 1965. (Salifa Karapetyan, Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY
“At that time it was common to rotate the slaves as well as the administrators between the two colonies. But with the recurring outbreaks a decision was taken to open a quarantine for these passengers before they were allowed in the settlement,” explained Mathiot.
For this purpose, a quarantine was opened at Longue Island, an inner island close to the main island of Mahe.
Other diseases which plagued the islands at that time included leprosy, which led to the opening of lepers’ colony on Curieuse Island from 1829 to 1900 and again from 1937 to 1965.
Reminders of those times are still visible today on Curieuse, where ruins of the buildings can be seen. The house of the Scottish doctor William MacGregor who cared for the lepers has been turned into a museum.
The outer island of Plate was also used as a quarantine station in 1834, but due to its distance to the main settlement, it was mostly used for passing ships.
The situation was so bad that when Marianne North – the famous English painter and globe trotter – arrived in Seychelles on October 13, in 1883, she too had to go in quarantine. (Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)Wikimedia Commons) Photo License: CC0
But the epidemic that left a deep scar history on the young nation was the smallpox outbreak.“On June 9, 1883, HMS Undine arrived in Port Victoria from Zanzibar with a passenger onboard afflicted with smallpox. Wrongfully diagnosed as chickenpox, the disease soon spread across town and suburban neighbourhoods, killing dozens of people and creating panic among the population,” explained Mathiot.
According to Mathiot, the epidemic claimed the lives of hundreds and it forced the authority to relook at certain practices with regards to burials and imposed the first guidelines for the islands.
“The bodies of infected people had to be put into a coffin, the bottom of which was lined with a thick layer of quick lime or coarsely powdered charcoal,” said the historian adding that for two years Mahe was under quarantined and no supplies from Mauritius were allowed in.
The situation was so bad that the historian added that when Marianne North – the famous English painter and globe trotter – arrived in Seychelles on October 13, in 1883, she too had to go in quarantine.
(George Henry Fox/Wikimedia Commons) Photo License: CC0
And in her journal on November 4, of that year North wrote: “real distress is beginning on Mahé, for want of provisions, trade being all stopped by this quarantine in Mauritius. The poor cannot afford to buy rice at the present price and are too weak to face sickness. These lovely Islands are sadly neglected. I am in perfect paradise with the most genuine and energetic people.”
Over the years, as a result of the epidemics, many other islands were identified and used for quarantine purposes, especially after in 1909, an ordinance was enacted, among which was “the notification of leprosy and its mitigation”.
Quarantines against contagion were also found on Round Island, near Praslin – the second most populated island, Moyenne and Anonyme islands. In the case of Moyenne island, a yellow flag was kept flying to indicate that the place was a quarantine station.
Béribéri, diabètes and TB
In the 1900’s – though not due to epidemics – many islanders died of other diseases: beriberi – a deficiency of vitamin B-1, pulmonary tuberculosis and diabetes because it was not until 1922 that insulin was discovered. Dysentery among the young and ankyloses – fused bones or other hard tissue, among the middle-aged were common infirmities of health that were too often fatal.
Over the years there were several reoccurrences of diseases but did not claim as many lives as the smallpox one did. There were also reports that in the 1940s schools were closed because of an outbreak of whooping cough.
The arrival of the first settlers in August 1770 opened the islands to an inflow of French and their slaves as well as to frequent ships calling in with merchandise and human cargoes as slavery was a lucrative trade at that time. (National Archives) Photo License: All Rights Reserved
In July 1956, the Seychelles Government Bulletin informed the public of “a case of Diphtheria had occurred in the colony, and that any person developing any symptoms of the disease like a sore throat with hoarseness of voice, fever, headache and pain in the limbs should report to the hospital for free examination.”
In modern times the island nation has seen outbreaks such as of fevers dengue: and chikungunya. We survived unscathed from epidemics threatening the world such as SARS and H1N1 and for the last 30 years HIV/Aids, also a pandemic. Through all of this, the Seychellois people had stood the tests of time and remained resilient.
Source: Seychelles News Agency