‘The hospitals were choked so that it was impossible to remove the dead quickly enough to make room for the dying; the streets and lanes of the cities were littered with dead and dying people; the postal and telegraph services were completely disorganized; the train service continued, but at all the principal stations dead and dying people were being removed from the trains; the burning ghats and burial grounds were literally swamped with corpses, whilst an even greater number awaited removal; the depleted medical service, itself sorely stricken by the epidemic, was incapable of dealing with more than a minute fraction of the sickness requiring attention; nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned.’
– A Preliminary Report on the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 in India
What happened around the year 1918? For many, that period is reminiscent of the end of World War I, which had raged since 1914. For those who admire Lenin, it brings to mind the euphoria immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In India, there is still vivid public remembrance of the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy of April 1919, when hundreds of Indians were shot down in Amritsar on General Reginald Dyer’s orders. And for that rare Indian student who has diligently studied for school-level history examinations, the ‘Rowlatt Act’ imposed by the British and the opposition to it the same year, would perhaps ring a bell.
However, if there is anything 1918 should be known for, it is the great influenza pandemic that wiped out over 40 million human beings in the matter of a few months. Based on my estimates, around 20 million of them died in the Indian subcontinent alone. These figures amounted to 2 per cent of the global population and 6.4 per cent of the Indian population at the time. To put this in perspective, more people died from the influenza pandemic in India than the global death count attributed to battle casualties in World War I. More Indians died in the influenza pandemic in a few months than the global death toll of the third plague pandemic.
This influenza pandemic ranks as the most catastrophic pandemic in modern history and as India’s worst recorded demographic disaster till date. The pandemic’s magnitude is as striking as its disappearance from public memory. What happened in 1918 and why did we forget it?
In 1919, Norman White wrote that ‘the heart-rending scenes witnessed by all who took an active part in endeavouring to combat the influenza outbreak in India in 1918 will never be forgotten’. But the reality is that the memory did quickly fade away over generations.
I find it rather astonishing that even a century after the influenza pandemic wiped out 20 million Indians in a matter of months in what is arguably the country’s greatest ever demographic disaster, very little research has been done on the subject. The pandemic figures as a footnote, if at all, in accounts of India’s freedom movement, taught to all in schools. Medical colleges in India rarely teach medical history and generations of doctors graduate without knowing about the influenza outbreak of 1918. The few books that have appeared on the pandemic have, ironically, focussed their attention on places that were the least affected—Europe and North America—to cater to their readerships. Even there, historians have worked hard to dig out the event as the title of Alfred Crosby’s much-acclaimed book in 1989 suggested: America’s Forgotten Pandemic.
What explains this apathy? If the pandemic was overshadowed by World War I in the Western world, in India, it was eclipsed by the freedom movement. And yet, overlooking the pandemic negates a crucial context within which Mohandas Gandhi, a pivotal figure in the fight for India’s independence, rose to the fore in 1918–19. Another explanation for neglecting the 1918 pandemic is that the plague, though less destructive, lasted for a longer period and caught the public’s imagination to a larger extent than influenza. In fact, in Australia, oral histories of those who lived through that period, when presented many decades later, revealed that people used the word ‘plague’ to describe influenza. Further, the documentation on the plague and cholera run into several volumes with detailed photographs, but records for 1918 in India fall short. Norman White’s Preliminary Report was the only official document published on the subject, never to be followed up on. For a long time, ‘6 million deaths’ was the number circulated in public, comparable to some of the catastrophic famines of the past, even though the Indian Census of 1921 suggested a higher number. Visual material of the 1918 pandemic in India is hard to find in newspapers of the time, probably because the photographers themselves reported sick.
The first time I encountered the event was in 2011 during my research on migration, when I looked, aghast, at a map I had just created on district-level population growth rates between 1911 and 1921. I had kept yellow as the colour for negative growth, and virtually all of India looked yellow. No other decade between 1901 and 2011 looked like this.
The brief nature of the influenza pandemic and its high intensity may have led to an unwillingness to document the event on the part of the people who lived through that time. With the agitations against colonial rule picking up pace in 1919 in India, there were other things to bother about. But I would argue that the fundamental reason why the 1918 pandemic was forgotten in India, and elsewhere, especially by later generations, was because there were no severe pandemics in the world after that. It is true that HIV-AIDS created a stir in the 1980s and 1990s, but the mode of transmission in that pandemic was entirely different and, eventually, it did not affect most people in a direct manner.
The memory of the influenza of 1918 was of course, vivid among those who had lived through that year. Four decades later, in 1957–58, another flu pandemic broke out, killing around 1 million people worldwide. India was barely affected, but during the initial phase, the medical community couldn’t help but recall 1918. In May 1957, Dr B.G. Vad, a Bombay-based physician, wrote the following in a letter to the editor of a newspaper:
Having forgotten the lessons of the 1890 epidemic, we were caught unawares in the 1918 epidemic which took a catastrophic toll. Those who have witnessed the ferocity know of the ravages from which not even a village nor hamlet escaped. The 1918 pandemic claimed more than seven million lives in India … In the city at that time, long queues were awaiting their turns at the burning place and burial ground. These facts are mentioned to draw attention to the impending probable catastrophe before it is too late. Poverty, starvation and lack of security and shelter are the fifth columnists of this epidemic. It is therefore imperative and urgent that the public health authorities, medical societies, public bodies, and public-spirited individuals mobilise and pool all available resources and organise proper and adequate medical relief in urban as well as rural areas.
Memory is important as it is the fundamental way in which knowledge accumulates. It was the memory of horrific plagues across centuries that prompted Europe to safeguard itself against the disease in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is the memory of recent influenza outbreaks in Vietnam that pushed it to take strong preventive actions against COVID-19 in January 2020 itself, ahead of the curve compared to most countries.233 And it is the recent memory of containing the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 in Kerala in south India that placed the state in a superior position to tackle COVID-19 in 2020. Unfortunately, the history of pandemics, compared to wars, is mostly absent in education systems and public conversation. And thus, many parts of the world were caught thoroughly off-guard when they faced a major pandemic again in 2020.
Excerpted with permission from The Age of Pandemics (1817 – 1920) by Chinmay Tumbe, HarperCollins India. You can buy it here.
Watch Chinmay Tumbe in conversation with Mini Menon, as they discuss more on the history of pandemics, here-
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