From: Nashi Brooker
Coronavirus 2020 and Spanish Flu in Albania a Century Ago

As we inevitably focus our minds on the coronavirus as its effects move around the world, it might be worthwhile reminding ourselves of the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in the Balkans.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed almost three times the 18 million victims of World War One. Additional millions caught it but survived, amongst them, the rich & powerful: Alfonso XIII, the King of Spain; Mahatma Gandhi; Franklin Roosevelt; and Walt Disney.

Albania in 1918

At this point in its history, Albania was a country with insufficient road links for efficient transportation and a weak agricultural sector that had no choice when dealing with a crisis other than to think about how to be self-sufficient. Aubrey Herbert, a British diplomat and member of the Albanian Committee September 1913, wrote about a town now known as Shengjin, which then was surrounded by marshland. He wrote:

“Never I have seen a more horrible place. The houses are tumbling down, miserable, decrepit, stinking. People crawled out of them like diseased animals”.

He adds for effect that Shengjin was a place where a duck might have caught typhoid, and a leech could develop malaria.

During the time he spent in Albania meeting Albanian notables and representatives of the Provisional Government of 1912, namely Ismail Qemal Bey and Essat Pasha, he asked them both to build roads, to feed refugees, to drain marshes to fight malaria, and move able-bodied men to the cities to help build roads and other infrastructure.

For example, when Aubrey met Essat Pasha in September 1913, he suggests that Pasha should ask the government to take a loan to feed the starving refugees.

Another historical factor that would have made Albania in 1918 a country with the potential for a large number of fatalities would have been the result of the Balkan Wars. The country was swamped with refugees from the north of Albania because of the Serbian Army attacks and in the south from the Greeks. Even though there are no official statistics available, one can conclude that the Spanish flu killed many of these people who were destitute and driven out of their homes.

The absence of an organised campaign for public health

To understand the arrival of the epidemic in the Balkans, we must look at the historical record, for example, “Calamity and Aspiration in the Ottoman Empire – 1918” states that the disease was first detected in July of 1918 in Istanbul.

According to the records of the municipality of Istanbul, the resulting number of deaths was 6,000 that year. However Dr. Hüsameddin Şerif estimated that in reality more than 13,000 fatalities could be attributed to the outbreak. “Balkan countries like Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria were all affected” he said.

Just next door to Albania in Greece, a local pioneer newspaper, “Thessalia” [Greek: Θεσσαλία], was the first to announce the arrival of Spanish Flu there. It was 19th July 1918 when they reported that an outbreak occurred in the Peloponnesian city of Patra, where a few days earlier, the flu outbreak had first shown its malignant character.

On October the 6th Thessalia published a telegram from the “Hellenic Ministry of Internal Affairs”, which summarised the current state of European scientific knowledge of the disease and its character;

“The disease germs enter the body through the mouth, and generally from the respiratory system. Frequent gargles, mainly with an oxygenated water and antiseptic cream, may have some preventive action. The disease spreads by coughs and is transmitted by air. Therefore it is recommended the avoidance of mental stress and overwork, as well as concentrations of each kind. All schools must close, and meticulous maintenance of cleanliness of lingerie and hands is proposed. In particular, it is highly recommended to avoid close contact with every person who displays flu symptoms”.

For all of the above, we have to admit without any hesitation that Albania along with other Balkan countries, a public health campaign was almost non-existent. For Albanians at this time, the most likely source of information about this deadly disease would have been word-of-mouth.

The impact of Spanish flu in Albania in 1918

Unfortunately there are no official statistics available to see what was the impact of Spanish Flu in Albania. We only can guess that, having no health system in place, and no concept of public health as we now understand it, the effects may well have been horrible to see or live through.

To gain an understanding of the impact, it is necessary to read the personal accounts of those who lived through that period.

This is from the dairy of a member of a prominent family, Hajredin Bey Cakrani, who was based in Cakran, Fier, South of Albania. He was one of three brothers called Bektash, Hajredin and Sulo Bey. They formed The Cakrani Foundation which was active in Albania from 1920.

It is worthy to mention here something with historical importance about this family, but for this article we will focus on their humanitarian aid and especially, the relief they provided for the Spanish Flu victims.

Here is a quote taken from the Hajredin Bej’s diary, a book published in Albanian by the historian Kastriot Bimo, stating:

“We returned back home and saw refugees on the way which possibly are as a result of the flu and the victims of the Greeks, who have burnt down their villages, and 50-100 souls are dying every day, which is not a inconsiderable loss of life. We have been told that this flu is spread across Europe, and it’s killing people en masse. Refugees, we have been told, have come via Vlora and from both sides of Vjosa river. This is the last we needed at this time for our nation. I can easily call this a tragedy. We didn’t wait for the summer, but got together with all the local notables and appealed to everyone to collect things for the refugees, like clothes, food and money, and we as brothers to get this done, decided to give this responsibility to our ladies. Also, we have instructed our servants to help with this”.

According to Marigo Posio’s chronicle of the times, the contribution of the Cakrani brothers, Hajredin, Sule and Bektash Bey, and their family to the refugees they were able to help was fourteen cows, 120 sheep, 200 Francs in money and clothes.

The Cakrani Family and humanitarian aid after 1920

Initially, The Cakrani Foundation provided humanitarian aid for refugees affected by the Spanish Flu, the Balkan Wars and World War One. Later, it supported poor children through offering scholarships during King Zog’s reign, and saved all Jewish refugees who lived in Berat after the German occupation of Albania in September 1943.

The family helped refugees from Kosovo between the year 1932-1935 after King Zog had sent most of them to settle in Fier, around the Seman river. All Albanian-Kosovars who now live in that part of Albania are the descendants of the Kosovar refugees of the year 1932-1935.

The Cakrani Foundation tried to aid The Perugia Division, which numbered 8000 in total after the Italian capitulation in September 1943. They rescued 500 of them and hid them in Mallakaster, where with the family’s help they built a camp, which also functioned as a hospital.

Kujtim Cakrani a leading officer of Balli Kombetar, managed to hide all the Jewish families in Lushnja and Mallakaster. To stop people denouncing the Jews, Kadri Cakrani gave a roof to all of the families who they found in Berat.

The level of humanitarian aid offered by this one family to people who needed it in Albania from 1914-1944 is extraordinary. All the help offered and given came from their own pockets. This family had to stop their help to the ones who were most in need in early 1945, following the persecution of the family by the communists.

Today, The Cakrani Foundation has been renewed since 2000. It offers similar help to the original foundation to the ones that need it most. This foundation is run by the lawyer Kujtim Cakrani, who is a descendant of the original Cakrani family.

Albania 2020

After almost one hundred years Albania, like the rest of the world, has been hit by COVID-19.

Luckily, the country so far has not had too many fatalities. There is public health information everywhere which no doubt has had an impact on the virus not spreading into the mass population. Thanks to the internet revolution Albania and Albanians are well informed on how to prevent infection and how not to spread the disease further. The world for the Albanians in 1918 was a very different one to that of today.

Today, Albania is luckily not isolated geopolitically and it enjoys all privileges that modern life is able to offer. Very recently, the EU agreed that EU accession talks could start with Albania. One of more recent things worthy of noting is that considerable financial help was offered to Albania from the EU to protect the population from the coronavirus.

Albania today has competent medical staff to handle the situation. Some thirty doctors and nurses from Albania have now joined Italian doctors to help their patients infected with coronavirus.

We must all celebrate the fact that Albania and Albanians of 2020 are in a much better situation to that of 1918. It is this that makes the country more resilient in the face of this terrible challenge.