Forgotten history of Spanish Flu-the epidemic that shook Gurugram in 1918
PANDEMIC OF 1918: This event can teach us a thing or two about survival in difficult times so that we are better prepared to tackle the ongoing public health crisisUpdated: Apr 04, 2020 19:17 IST
The Haryana government has declared coronavirus disease (Covid-19) an epidemic, and we have started limiting our travels and public gatherings. We need to be aware that almost 102 years ago, Gurugram was one of the areas that faced the much severe calamity of the influenza or Spanish Flu — one of the most devastating pandemics ever recorded in the world history.
This pandemic that shook the world and India in 1918 has been quoted in several news features, but its significant impact on Gurugram is lesser-known to us. Caused by the H1N1 virus, it spread worldwide between 1918 and 1919, although its point of origin is still debated. Unlike the coronavirus of 2020, the influenza virus impacted the mortality rate of young people between 20 and 40 years of age rather than older people.
It entered India via sea route in Bombay in July 1918, where it was initially called “naya sardi ka bukhar”. Like any virus, it spread, following the path of its human carriers, along trade routes and shipping lines, as the air routes were fairly new at that time and there was none for India. The Spanish Flu, so named because of the higher number of causalities in Spain in the initial phase, swept through parts of North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific.
Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, mentions how this disease claimed between 50-100 million lives worldwide, possibly more than both the world wars combined and how India bore the greatest burden of death — almost 1/5th of the entire lot in the world. Though the statistics for mortality are too wide-ranging and debatable, it is accepted by all that the Indian subcontinent was the focal point impacted by this pandemic. Researchers Siddharth Chandra, Goran Kuljanin and Jennifer Wray have calculated mortality from the influenza pandemic in India, using panel data models and data from the Census of India. This counters some of the overly stated ones recorded by Davis in 2018. Statistics apart, some of the most painful experience of this epidemic comes up in the narration of the famous Hindi poet Nirala, who lost most of his family members in the epidemic.
This impact of the Spanish Flu in Gurugram is available in research works by Ruby Bala in the proceedings of the Indian History Congress published in 2011 along with some mention by Biresh Chaudhari in his writings on Nationalist Movement in Delhi 1911-32.
Initially when this influenza reached Gurugram in the then Punjab Province by August 1918, it was not taken seriously and was passed off as a casual fever since the mortality rate was low. But in the span of next 3 months from September to October 1918, the then Gurgaon district became the worst-affected region in the Punjab province resulting in 63,071 deaths, which was almost 9% of the total district population at that time.
In the words of the sanitary commissioner of the Punjab government, “the province was infected from Gurgaon to Campbellpur”. The mortality rate in Gurugram was the highest, followed by Rohtak, Karnal Ferozepur and Hisar. The initial brunt of this influenza was on the postal and telegraph systems, the railways, and the returning military officials because of the nature of their services that required travel and greater interaction. But in the next two months, it spread across the entire population of Gurgaon district and the Punjab Province including the rural areas. It is recorded that from October 15 to November 8, 1918, the entire Punjab province was literally a cemetery or a cremation ground with burials of bodies and burning pyres.
Biresh Chaudhari mentions that the pandemic was aggravated in Gurugram due to the skyrocketing hike in the prices of necessary articles, such as salt and flour. In fact, a few historians also attribute the increased momentum of the nationalist movement to the impact of this pandemic in India.
This important event in Gurugram’s history should better our understanding of survival through difficult times such as today, so that we can tackle the present situation with the responsibility to support our government in their efforts to control this pandemic.
(Shikha Jain is state convenor, INTACH Haryana Chapter and member of Heritage Committees under ministries of culture and HRD. She is co-editor of book ‘Haryana: Cultural Heritage Guide’; director, DRONAH (Development and Research Organisation).