Why the tragedy of such volume was forgotten so soon and virtually erased from the human memory and history books till the current wave of the Coronavirus epidemic hit humanity one year ago
By Javed Beigh
Spanish Flu: Today, when humanity is grappling with the ever-growing deadly impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has so far claimed over 30 Lakh human beings all over the world, it becomes crucial to look back at yet another deadly pandemic, which took place nearly 100 years ago during the First World War that is said to have killed up to 5 crore people and infected 50
crore, humans, out of the then total world population of 150 crore people.
Yes, I am talking about the deadly 1918 influenza epidemic, also popularly known as the “Spanish Flu”. The said epidemic was also Indian subcontinent’s most deadly epidemic that killed an estimated one crore Indians in erstwhile British India. And over a century later, we are once again at the same point and in the same situation, with India clocking over 3 Lakh infection cases every day and its highest ever tally of Coronavirus related deaths of over 3,100 people in a single day during the peak of Coronavirus.
The “Spanish Flu” is a misnomer as it did not originate in Spain. The influenza outbreak is believed to have originated in Kansas, The United States in March 1918. It spread to France, Germany and United Kingdom, carried by American forces fighting in the First World War. All countries involved in the First World War suppressed the news of the outbreak to maintain the morale of their fighting forces, and Spain being the neutral country, was the only nation that did not censor the news of the epidemic. Hence, the epidemic came to be known as the “Spanish Flu” since then.
The epidemic came in four successive waves from 1918 till 1920, out of which the second wave caused by a mutated strain of the influenza was most deadly that killed people of all ages, especially the young. The second deadly wave of the Spanish Flu had begun in Sierra Leone, Africa, from transported American troops. The mutated strain spread to the entire North, Central and Southern America, the entire African continent and Europe from these moving troops. From Europe, the epidemic moved to the Russian empire and then entered Asia. First, it came to Arabian lands, then Iran and Central Asia and finally to Indian subcontinent, where it caused humongous devastation.
In British India, the influenza flu became known as “Bombay Fever” because it first hit the shipping yard of Bombay that received returning British Indian soldiers from Europe after the end of World War I. The outbreak then soon spread to entire British India, both princely states and British ruled territories. It affected all regions from the Himalayas to coastal lands and from deserts to tropical forests.
From the conservative estimate of the death of 1 crore Indians to nearly 1.5 crore Indians, mostly young people and that too women were the most affected segment of Indian population. It is said that such was the scale of deaths that neither enough land was available for burial nor enough wood was available for cremation, because of which families immersed bodies of their dead loved ones in rivers. Nearly all rivers of
The pile of floating rotting bodies choked British India. British India lost nearly 5% of its population, and this period was the only period of negative population growth in the recorded history of India, which saw a low population growth of only 1.2% during the decade of 1911-1921. Even Mahatma Gandhi is said to have been inflicted with the disease.
The epidemic came in four successive waves from 1918 till 1920, out of which the second wave caused by a mutated strain of the influenza was most deadly that killed people of all ages, especially the young.
There are no clear-cut reasons and explanations for a high mortality number caused by the influenza epidemic. Due to less advancement in medical and biological science, it is not clear if more virulent mutated strains of influenza caused such a high number of deaths. However, it is believed that the overall malnourishment of the world population played a great role in making people, both armed forces and civilian populations, vulnerable to severe illness due to their much weaker body immunity. This is also believed to be true for British India, where the general population was underfed, physically weak and by and large malnourished.
Just like the current Coronavirus, most deaths during the outbreak of Spanish Flu was caused by bacterial pneumonia, a common secondary infection associated with influenza, which impacted human lungs by causing massive haemorrhages in the lungs triggering a cytokine storm or overreaction of the body’s immune system was leading to multi-organ failures.
The most surprising aspect of the Spanish Flu epidemic has been its rather inconspicuous mention in the modern history of mankind. Given the scale of deaths that this epidemic caused both in Indian subcontinent as well as the entire world, it is very unusual that there has been very little human remembrance of this catastrophic event.
Historians, epidemiologists and medical researchers are surprised as to why the tragedy of such volume was forgotten so soon and virtually erased from the human memory and history books till the current wave of the Coronavirus epidemic hit humanity one year ago, after an outbreak in the interior Chinese city of Wuhan.
The present and continuing outbreak of Coronavirus has revived interest in the Spanish Flu. Unfortunately, given the time lag and the fact that most people who remembered the time are now dead, it is very difficult to do any meaningful research on the epidemic of 1918. Most historical accounts of the influenza epidemic come from newspapers published at that time.
However, the news about the Spanish Flu in these newspapers is not detailed as the world was more occupied with the events of World War 1. Some medical experiments were done decades after 1918 by taking samples from bodies of dead patients buried in frozen lands of Europe, and some medical studies relating thereto were also published. But most historical, anecdotal and medical information remains sketchy of the catastrophic events of the great Spanish Flu.
The epidemic of Spanish Flu or the present Coronavirus pandemic and some other deadly preceding epidemics like the SARS outbreak of 2001, The Swine Flu epidemic of 2009 or Ebola outbreaks of Western Africa tell us that more the humans interfere with the sensitive and delicate balance of nature, more it exposes the humanity to dangers of many yet unknown viruses, some of which may have the potential of extermination of the human race. The overarching message of the Spanish Flu epidemic and current coronavirus pandemic is that humans must respect the boundaries of nature and must not disturb the sensitive balance of the natural ecosystem, which may unleash many potentially dangerous diseases upon mankind.
Javed Beigh can be reached @Javedbeigh across Social Media Platforms. Views are his personal.