Excerpt: The Age of Pandemics by Chinmay Tumbe

This exclusive first excerpt from a new book looks at why India has totally forgotten the devastation of 1918 even though 20 million Indians died of influenza that year
A warehouse converted to keep infected people quarantined during the Influenza pandemic in 1918.(Universal Images Group via Getty)
A warehouse converted to keep infected people quarantined during the Influenza pandemic in 1918.(Universal Images Group via Getty)
Updated on Nov 20, 2020 06:19 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Chinmay Tumbe
271pp, Rs 599, Harper Collins
271pp, Rs 599, Harper Collins

‘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. …

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? …

The Aftermath

…it is possible that 40–60 per cent of the Indian population contracted the flu in 1918. Its impact on the economy was devastating. Between 1900 and 2019, 1918–19 stands as the worst year for India in macroeconomic terms: output or real GDP contracted by 10 per cent and inflation surged to 30 per cent.

…Industrial output slipped by nearly 10 per cent in 1918–19… The next year, 1919–20, witnessed an economic rebound as agricultural output recovered and wholesale prices moderated, but retail prices continued to surge as foodgrains were still in short supply. The period of 1918–20 was thus economically very volatile. All of this injected a new momentum into the political forces combating colonial rule, and created the space for Gandhi to rise to the forefront of the movement. Publications like Young India, published by Gandhi, questioned whether the government understood the psychological impact of the pandemic, and how 6 million people were allowed to die ‘like rats without succour’…

The Disappearance of Memory

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.…

Author Chinmay Tumbe (Courtesy HarperCollins)
Author Chinmay Tumbe (Courtesy HarperCollins)

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… 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 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…

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. 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.

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