By Rafia Zakaria
The year was 1918, before the First World War when the first case of the Spanish flu was reported from Kansas, United States. By the time it ended about two years later, the Spanish flu pandemic was believed to have infected at least 500 million people — a staggering one-third of the population of the whole world. The death toll was said to be around 50m.
The largest number of lives taken by the Spanish flu was in undivided India. More than 18m people perished from the disease there — this was the largest number of deaths in a single country. Mahatma Gandhi also contracted the Spanish flu along with millions of his compatriots. His experiences and that of the Indian population at large exposed the inequities of colonial rule under the British.
By the time the Spanish flu struck the subcontinent in the 20th century, the British had ruled India for one and half centuries, without having invested anything in the country’s health infrastructure. There was no network of hospitals and no real system that could deliver healthcare to the millions of ordinary people living under colonial rule. Hence, it is not surprising there was also no way of saving millions of those who were infected by the lethal flu.
For the Indian masses, this experience only confirmed the belief that the British were not benevolent masters. Perceptions that the latter were bringing scientific progress to India and lifting it out of poverty could not really hold during the pandemic and after it receded.
Indeed, ordinary Indians could ask that if the British were so interested in making things better for the Indians, why did they fail to provide a basic healthcare system that could have saved thousands of lives in the land they ruled? The lack of answers from British representatives was among the factors that sowed the seeds of political discontent in the subcontinent. Hence, it could be said that the struggle against the British colonialists was further strengthened by a global pandemic.
Like the Spanish flu, the novel coronavirus may also trigger a collapse of the world order.
The fatality rates and patterns of mortality of the Spanish flu made its ravages even more poignant. Most of the people it killed were young adults — those who had their lives before them, those whose loss would be felt the most and the longest. Death often came with what is called a ‘cytokine storm’, a reaction in which the body’s immune system is overwhelmed, triggering a shutdown of the organs one after the other. The first to fail was the respiratory system, the patient could no longer breathe and death would follow soon after.
What paved the way for increasing anti-British sentiment in India also caused political cataclysms in other parts of the world. According to history books, people of the time would associate the Spanish flu with the beginning of the First World War in Europe. The casualties of this world war would merge in popular memory with the casualties of the Spanish flu, the terrible sadness and feeling of loss of the two fusing into one indistinguishable whole.
Our current historical moment feels just as momentous as the days of the Spanish flu. There are similarities in the two diseases themselves. The COVID-19 is not just a dangerous strain of influenza; it also affects the respiratory system. It also provokes a cytokine storm that overwhelms the respiratory system first. Many patients find it difficult to breathe and have to be attached to a ventilator. Reports from the Netherlands and South Korea show that patients can remain on the ventilator for several weeks before they are able to breathe on their own. That is, if they survive.
Many don’t and many others will not. The novel coronavirus has now spread to most countries of the world. The doubling of cases every few days has meant that the world at large has been forced to introspect and change its own behaviour because of the inefficacy of the existing containment measures.
As epidemiologists are fond of telling us, the life of a virus is the behaviour of the virus and the behaviour of the host. Since the virus’s aptitude for surviving on surfaces and infecting sometimes without causing symptoms cannot currently be treated, human beings have had to change their behaviour instead. It is currently believed that if a large enough number of the human population alters its behaviour through self-isolation, there will be no new hosts for the virus. If there are no new hosts then the spread of the coronavirus, which has proven to be a master at travelling fast and furiously, can finally be stopped.
Then there is the question of politics. The Spanish flu pandemic was closely followed by a world war and sweeping transformational change all over the globe. Similarly, the novel coronavirus will also claim its casualties in the collapse of systems and beliefs that have existed unchallenged for decades or centuries. We might witness the fall of governments and the fall of great world leaders.
It is a historic time, it is an uncertain time, and it is a deadly time. It is also a time that is desperate for human solidarity. If humans, particularly those who are young and healthy, alter their behaviour despite knowing that the virus is likely to spare them, then the old, the weak and the infirm have a chance at survival. It is a tall order for a world that pivots on self-interest. But humankind has accomplished great things in the past. It has survived and it has endured. Now is the time to remind oneself and everyone else of that truth, that possibility, so that all may endure the darkness of the moment.