Journal : Global Times (Chinese) Date : Author : He Kun, Li Yang Page No. : NA

Recently, India’s new corona epidemic has suddenly gone out of control, with daily confirmed cases continuing to set new records, resulting in a sharp increase in the number of deaths, open-air cremation of bodies and other tragic conditions that have shocked the world. However, this is not the first large-scale outbreak of plague in India. The country India has experienced many terrible pandemics due to natural and man-made disasters.

The Great flu of 1918: 17 million people died

The pandemic that began to sweep the world in 1918 killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide, far more than the death toll of the First World War. What is less well known, however, is that the pandemic killed the most people not in Europe and the United States, where it was repeatedly mentioned in the media, but in faraway India.

At the beginning of the 20th century, India was a poor, plague-ridden colony with no public health system in place, and not only was Western medicine not yet widely available, but most Indians had to turn to the gods and indigenous Ayurvedic medicine when they fell ill. On May 29, 1918, when the First World War was about to end, a ship carrying the Indian Expeditionary Force arrived at the coast of Mumbai. It was not only filled with supplies brought back from the suzerain country, Britain, but also carrying a deadly influenza virus brought from Europe. Virus strain. In June 1918, the first flu patient appeared in Mumbai. Before long, flu epidemics broke out in western, northern and central parts of India one after another.

The spread of the pandemic was exacerbated by poor public health conditions and unhealthy eating habits. It was a time of rapid development of India’s cotton textile industry, and Mumbai, the center of India’s textile industry, attracted a large number of cheap laborers. Most of them were the poor of India’s lower castes, often living in overcrowded slums, some even confined to squalid alleys, stables and warehouses. British Baron Dinshaw Manekerjee Pettit, who was serving in India at the time, commented, “Bombay is hidden in the depths of disease, filth and degradation, and in sanitary conditions that would be utterly intolerable even in a third-rate European city!”

Despite their dislike of India’s filth, the British were not willing to expend any effort or money to renovate this huge “viral petri dish”. Soon, there were more and more patients with fever, aching limbs, and bronchial inflammation in the city of Bombay, but the British colonial authorities thought it was just a general flu and did not take it seriously. However, the influenza virus completed its mutation throughout Indian society unprepared, the incubation period became shorter, the lethality rate became higher, and many people went from infection to death in just one morning. At this point, there was full-blown outbreak of the pandemic in India.

During the spread of the epidemic, the few hospitals in India were already without beds, and even after expanding beds in schools, there were not enough beds to accommodate patients, most of whom had to wait for death. At the time, records show that hospitals were overflowing with dead bodies, and no one dared to carry them out to make room for the dying, so they were just piled up one by one.

Not only the hospital, the streets and alleys of India’s cities were full of bodies, almost every house had people crying for the dead, a horrible and depressing atmosphere permeated the whole of India.

And the response of the British colonial authorities to the pandemic was outrageous. When the epidemic broke out, many colonial government officials ran to the mountains to protect themselves, leaving the Indian people to fend for themselves in the infected areas. When the epidemic was raging, the colonial officials who had no idea how to prevent the epidemic also prescribed medication.

The colonial officials who saw the epidemic coming had come up with some strange remedies: gargling with potassium permanganate, using more disinfectants, and sleeping outdoors as much as possible ……. Naturally, the results were not helpful. Indian folk rumors say that the British secretly dismembered Indians in hospitals to extract medicinal solutions that were used to protect the British from the plague. Millions of Indians then fled the cities and ran to the countryside out of panic, bringing the epidemic to more places. The British colonial government, in turn, unleashed draconian controls, only to further inflame ethnic tensions. India’s Mahatma Gandhi also narrowly escaped death in the pandemic, which spread alarmingly. in 1919, Young India published by Gandhi wrote: “No civilized government would have been so inactive as the (British) Indian government in the face of so terrible and disastrous an epidemic of infectious disease”.

The Indian Health Commissioner’s annual report for 1918 described, “All the rivers are clogged with corpses. Under prolonged immersion, the bodies had soaked and begun to rot and stink”. A 22-year-old Indian youth said in despair, “The Ganges is full of corpses because people don’t have enough wood to cremate them. Because of the epidemic, my family disappeared in the blink of an eye”.

It wasn’t until two years later that the pandemic slowly disappeared worldwide, and all of India was in mourning by that time.  According to India’s later estimates, as many as 17 million people died of this pandemic, accounting for about 1/20th of the total population of India at that time. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, lost 3 million lives due to this pandemic.

19th century: Cholera that spread all over the world

The outside world generally believes that the large-scale spread of the new corona epidemic in India is inseparable from the practice of Indian people gathering in violation of regulations to celebrate the “big pot festival.  The first time I learnt of it, I was able to see that the people of India could not possibly celebrate the “Big Pot Festival” (Kumbh Mela) in a big way. In fact, the long-standing cholera epidemic in India is also closely related to religious activities such as pilgrimages. However, the British colonial authorities turned a blind eye to this, which eventually led to a tragedy and even endangered them themselves.

Since ancient times, India’s Ganges Delta has been an endemic area for cholera, known as the “home of human cholera”. In ancient times, contact between the Indian mainland and the outside world was not convenient, so spread of the cholera to the outside was slow. But with the advent of the great age of navigation, the British not only opened the door to South Asia, but also opened the Pandora’s Box of cholera epidemics in the Ganges Delta.

An epidemic disease spread through the digestive system, cholera, it has to be said, took a heavy toll on the Ganges-obsessed Indians. The 2,500-kilometer-long Ganges is considered the most sacred river by Hindus. Every year, from January to March, a bathing festival is held at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims immerse themselves in the river to cleanse their bodies and minds of filth. Not only that, Hindus also scatter the ashes of the dead into the Ganges. But from a hygienic point of view, the Ganges River has thus become dirty and a breeding ground for Vibrio cholerae. As part of the pilgrimage ritual, pilgrims drink raw Ganges water, which provides ideal conditions for the spread of Vibrio cholerae. The pilgrims’ act of bringing this water to their friends and relatives further contributes to the spread of cholera.

To make matters worse, the unusual meteorological conditions that emerged in the 19th century created the right conditions for Vibrio cholerae to multiply. 1815 saw torrential rains and floods that wiped out harvests in India, 1816 was exceptionally hot and dry, and 1817 saw heavy rains again. The spread of the cholera epidemic, which lasted for several years, began. By March 1817, a cholera patient died at Fort William in Calcutta, but the colonial authorities only considered that to be an isolated incident and took no notice. In July the same year, cholera spread rapidly throughout Bengal, and Calcutta was also affected. In 1818, the cholera epidemic spread to a wider area of India, with a population mortality rate of 7.5%.

In the following two years, the cholera epidemic continued to rage and spread abroad, with Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines being “hit” one after another, thus unveiling a worldwide cholera pandemic. After the Pandora’s Box of cholera was opened, it was not so easy to be shut. Since 1816, cholera outbreaks have occurred eight times around the world, affecting Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. The famous Russian musician Tchaikovsky was killed by the disease during the third global outbreak of cholera.

In the face of the tragic losses caused by the cholera epidemic, the International Health Conference held in Constantinople in 1866 adopted the theory of “contact contagion” as the cause of the disease, and clearly pointed out that “among the many causes of the occurrence and spread of the cholera epidemic in India, pilgrimages are the most important factor “. Investigations at that time showed that the festive gatherings associated with Indian pilgrimages, such as the “Holi Festival”, “Maha Kumbh Festival”, and “Laghu Kumbh Festival”, coincided with several outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century. The cycle of cholera outbreaks in the 19th century was highly coterminus with the festivals. Because these celebrations were attended by millions of people, cholera epidemics could spread very quickly and kill large numbers of people.

For example, only 19 pilgrims were treated for cholera at the “Great Pot Festival” held in Hardwar in April 1867, whereas the number of participants had touched 3 million. The epidemic soon spread along the pilgrims’ route to northern India. About 250,000 people contracted cholera that year, half of whom died as a result of it. International Health Conferences urged Britain to strengthen its response to the cholera epidemic, but the colonial authorities “backtracked”. In the mid-19th century, British Indian health official Cunningham brought the epidemic under control for a time by enforcing quarantine measures and establishing emergency quarantine hospitals for pilgrims at risk of contracting cholera, which once brought the epidemic under control. However, due to political compromise and financial difficulties, in the first half of 1868, British health authorities convinced Cunningham to stop quarantining ships sailing from Bombay. The results of this relaxation of the quarantine policy were predictable. According to incomplete statistics, the cumulative number of Indian deaths from cholera over the years was as high as 38 million to 60 million. 

1994: Massive Plague Scares A Million People Away

Beginning in the Middle Ages, a global discourse on plague under the name of the “Black Death” emerged upon its breaking out many times in the world . By the 1950s, the third world plague pandemic had basically subsided. Many experts believed that with modern medical advances, the plague had moved from an active phase to a quiescent one. However, the 1994 plague epidemic in India once again took experts by surprise.

The southwestern Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra are dotted with large scrub forest ecosystems with high animal activity. Due to rapid increase in population and growing food shortages, there was indiscriminately clearing of jungles in order to obtain more food sources, resulting in a significant reduction in the number of natural enemies of rats such as black-winged warblers, South Asian eagles, and great bustards. In addition, concentration of slums locally and mounting garbage piles, the rat population kept increasing day by day.

In 1994, the global climate was abnormal, and the northern hemisphere suffered from rare hot weather over wide areas, with heat waves rolling through the Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. The plague first began to spread from rural areas of Maharashtra. However, in the eyes of the Indian government of the day, illness of low-caste rural people was not a major event worthy of attention. In late September 1994, the Gujarati city of Surat in neighboring Maharashtra was in the midst of the revelry of the Ganesha Festival. However, amidst the peaceful atmosphere, a creeping specter had crept into the city.

On September 19, Surat Hospital suddenly received 30 patients with similar conditions. They were suffering from high fever, coughing, sneezing and vomiting blood, and soon fell into spells of fainting. On September 20, the first patient died in the hospital, followed by a number of other patients who succumbed to the disease. The deceased blackened bodies, and left them with bulging eyes, and in excruciating pain. After doctors tested the blood samples, they found that these patients were suffering from the plague, with an epidemic in the neighboring Maharashtra countryside.

After disaster struck, Indian officials declared an “international public health emergency” in Surat, and on Sept. 23, Surat authorities ordered all schools, cinemas and parks to be closed, and large businesses such as factories and banks to shut down until the government lifted the warning. However, medical conditions in Surat were very poor, medical equipment was very outdated, medical staff was severely lacking, and there were very few medicines to treat the disease, including tetracycline and sulfa, which were in short supply. By October 4, more than 1,000 people had been admitted to hospitals for treatment and examination, and 50 of them had died of the disease.

The Indian government’s handling of the plague outbreak has been particularly disappointing, with no official information on how to deal with the outbreak and no guidance from the medical sector on proper preventive measures for the population. Some people, blindly believing that eliminating rats would be beneficial in ending the epidemic, embarked on a massive rodent eradication campaign, which resulted in direct human contact with rodent fleas and further amplified the intensity of the outbreak of the plague.

To escape the terrible shadow of the plague, the inhabitants of Surat fled in large numbers and the Indian government had to send in the army to control the situation. But it was too late, as the blockade was not timely and hundreds of thousands of people ran away from their places of residence in desperate panic. According to estimates by foreign agencies, about 500,000 people fled the city within four days of the announcement. They also brought plague germs and fear across India and caused millions of people to flee their homes. In less than two weeks, plague outbreaks were reported in many parts of India. In the capital city of New Delhi alone, 770 people were hospitalized, four of whom died.

The plague, which came to be known as the “Surat Storm,” not only claimed the lives of many Indians, but also caused immeasurable social disruption and economic loss to Indian society. At that time, there was large-scale looting of purchases in India, especially medicines and related medical equipment. More than 40 countries took decisive steps to temporarily suspend air and sea traffic with India, cancel flights to India, and quarantine and sanitize flights, ships and cargo or passengers from India. At the time, it was reported at that time that “the plague has made foreign investors skeptical of India’s investment climate. It is undoubtedly great bad news for this developing country that is eager to bring in foreign investment to develop its economy ……”



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