Ideas & Debate

Covid: Is history repeating itself in India?

India Covid

A health worker walks inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a Covid-19 ward in New Delhi on April 27, 2021. PHOTO | AFP

Summary

  • Looking at images and reports in Indian media this week, it seems nothing has changed even after a century.
  • Locals in Buxar district of Bihar province reported about floating dead bodies in River Ganga on May 9.
  • Similar was the sight in Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh province very next day.

Influenza Pandemic-1918 also known as ‘Spanish Flu’ was an unusually deadly pandemic which lasted from February 1918 to April 1920. Spanish flu infected 500 million people—about a third of the world’s population at that time. The estimated number of deaths ranging from 20 million to a possible high of 100 million makes it one of the deadliest pandemics in the human history.

There are stories documented in the pages of history from the Spanish Flu era (1918-20) which can still be referred to learn a lesson or two. On 28th September 1918, the Liberty Loan Parade was organized in Philadelphia, USA, to economically support the soldiers who fought in World War I.

Intellectuals opposed the event, they were of the opinion that since the Spanish flu was still going strong; a crowded event may result in a new series of disasters. Ignoring such objections, local administration allowed the event.

It was a matter of patriotism, so more than 200,000 people gathered. What followed was along the expected lines. Within the next few days, 47,000 fresh cases were reported and 12,000 people lost their lives. In October 1918, over 195,000 people had lost lives in the US alone.

THE TRAGIC INDIAN CHAPTER

Spanish flu struck India at the same time and 10-20 million people, then 3-6 per cent of the population, had died. The major damage was caused in a short period from June 1918 to early 1919. The second wave of the pandemic lasted for less than three months - but was most devastating.

One of the famous Hindi poet and writer of that era, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala wrote about his personal experience of 1918 pandemic in a book. The writer famously known as ‘Nirala’ received a telegram message which read “Come back urgently, your wife is seriously ill”.

The writer was in Bengal (province in East India) and he took the next train to his hometown in Uttar Pradesh. When Nirala reached his hometown which was on the banks of river Ganga, he observed that ‘the River Ganga was swollen with bodies’. By the time he reached home, his teenage wife was already dead.

In the days to follow, all other family members got the infection and died. Reports from government documents had made similar observation that "all rivers across India were clogged with bodies because of shortage of firewood for cremation".

HISTORY IS REPEATING ITSELF

Looking at images and reports in Indian media this week, it seems nothing has changed even after a century. Locals in Buxar district of Bihar province reported about floating dead bodies in River Ganga on May 9. Similar was the sight in Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh province very next day. The local administration is investigating the cases and performed the last rights of unidentified bodies.

The bodies are suspected to be those of Covid-19 patients who were dumped in the river, revealing the scale of Covid emergency in India. Locals said, following the Hindu cremation rituals, people either burn their dead or immerse the bodies in the river. Due to the lack of firewood at the crematoriums owing to the rise in Covid-related deaths, the poor immersed them in the river.

These may be stray cases, but even isolated cases put a big question-mark on the progress of medical science and human development. Such incidents depict a real picture of the catastrophe this planet is going through at present.

Social media feeds are full with videos of Covid funerals at crowded cemeteries, wailing relatives of the dead outside hospitals, long queues of ambulances carrying gasping patients, mortuaries overflowing with the dead, and patients, sometimes two to a bed, in corridors and lobbies of hospitals.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

In early March, politicians and parts of the media believed that India was truly out of the woods. While customary guidance on Covid-appropriate behaviour was issued, it was policymakers and elected leaders who tacitly encouraged crowding in festivals, election rallies and religious congregation.

The second wave of Covid-19 has come a few months after the second wave in other countries, there was no reason to believe it would be any different in India or in any other country.

More than ventilators and ICU beds, what was essential was an adequate supply of oxygen in hospitals to treat critically ill patients. Nonetheless, when the second wave of the pandemic arrived, India’s medical oxygen supply network collapsed.

Availability of hospital beds was no-where close to meet the sudden demand. WHO standard is 30 hospital beds per 10,000 people; India has only 5.3, much less compared to even smaller countries New Zealand 25.7 and South Korea 124. Kenya has 14 hospital beds per 10,000 people and the number is much better compared to most of the African countries.

India recorded a worrying test positivity ratio (TPR) of 22.36% in the end of second week of May which is way above the 5% TPR needed to control the pandemic, India’s testing numbers seem to be dipping instead of keeping pace with the rate of transmission.

BATTLE IS FAR FROM OVER

Experts are raising concerns that inoculation is not helping turn the tide in some places. Of the Seychelles, Israel, the UAE, Chile and Bahrain—respectively the world’s five most vaccinated countries—only Israel is not fighting to contain a dangerous surge in Covid-19 infections.

Seychelles, which has vaccinated more of its population against Covid-19 than any other country, saw active cases more than double in the end of first week of May.

In Maldives where over 35% of the population had received two shots is also struggling with rising number of new cases which jumped to 12,000 plus on May 12.

The world is at war with Covid; more than 3 million people have lost their lives so far. But while some countries move forward with vaccination campaigns and business reopening, a resurgence in India and South America is a stark reminder of the pandemic’s severe and ongoing toll.

Society’s staggered return towards “normal” also begs the question of what we will learn when this once-in-a-century pandemic is finally over and how the 3 million lives lost (and counting) will be remembered in the future.

Sharma is former senior editor of The Times of India. He is based in New Delhi