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1918 flu pandemic killed 12 million Indians, and British overlords’ indifference strengthened the anti-colonial movement

Saturday 2 May 2020

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In India, during the 1918 influenza pandemic, a staggering 12 to 13 million people died, the vast majority between the months of September and December. According to an eyewitness, “There was none to remove the dead bodies and the jackals made a feast.”

At the time of the pandemic, India had been under British colonial rule for over 150 years. The fortunes of the British colonizers had always been vastly different from those of the Indian people, and nowhere was the split more stark than during the influenza pandemic, as I discovered while researching my Ph.D. on the subject.

The resulting devastation would eventually lead to huge changes in India – and the British Empire.

From Kansas to Mumbai

Although it is commonly called the Spanish flu, the 1918 pandemic likely began in Kansas and killed between 50 and 100 million people with soldiers deploying for WWI.

Introduced into the trenches on Europe’s Western Front, the virus tore through the already weakened troops. As the war approached its conclusion, the virus followed both commercial shipping routes and military transports to infect almost every corner of the globe. It

arrived in Mumbai in late May

. A letter published in a periodical lamented, “India perhaps never saw such hard times before. There is wailing on all sides. … There is neither village nor town throughout the length and breadth of the country which has not paid a heavy toll.”

Elsewhere, the Sanitary Commissioner of the Punjab noted, “the streets and lanes of cities were littered with dead and dying people … nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned.”

The fallout

In the end, areas in the north and west of India saw death rates between 4.5% and 6% of their total populations, while the south and east – where the virus arrived slightly later, as it was waning – generally lost between 1.5% and 3%.

Geography wasn’t the only dividing factor, however. In Mumbai, almost seven-and-a-half times as many lower-caste Indians died as compared to their British counterparts - 61.6 per thousand->https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/001946468602300102] versus 8.3 per thousand.

Among Indians in Mumbai, socioeconomic disparities in addition to race accounted for these differing mortality rates.

The Health Officer for Calcutta remarked on the stark difference in death rates between British and lower-class Indians: “The excessive mortality in Kidderpore appears to be due mainly to the large coolie population, ignorant and poverty-stricken, living under most insanitary conditions in damp, dark, dirty huts. They are a difficult class to deal with.”

Change ahead

Death tolls across India generally hit their peak in October, with a slow tapering into November and December. A high ranking British official wrote in December, “A good winter rain will put everything right and … things will gradually rectify themselves.”

Normalcy, however, did not quite return to India. The spring of 1919 would see the British atrocities at Amritsar and shortly thereafter the launch of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Influenza became one more example of British injustice that spurred Indian people on in their fight for independence. Anationalist periodical stated, “In no other civilized country could a government have left things so much undone as did the Government of India did during the prevalence of such a terrible and catastrophic epidemic.”

The long, slow death of the British Empire had begun.

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