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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 37  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 133-135

The age of pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped india and the world

Mental Health Advisor, The Association for the Mentally Challenged, Dharmaram College, Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission12-Mar-2021
Date of Acceptance12-Mar-2021
Date of Web Publication31-Mar-2021

Correspondence Address:
Prof. R Srinivasa Murthy
Mental Health Advisor, The Association for the Mentally Challenged, Dharmaram College, Bangalore - 560 025, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_61_21

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How to cite this article:
Murthy R S. The age of pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped india and the world. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2021;37:133-5

How to cite this URL:
Murthy R S. The age of pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped india and the world. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2021 [cited 2023 Feb 1];37:133-5. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2021/37/1/133/312803

Author : Chinmay Tumbe

Title : The Age of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they Shaped India and the World

Type : Book Review

Publisher : Harper Collins

Place of Publication : Noida

Kindle Edition : 1st Edition

Year of Publication : 2020

Pages : 292

Price : Rupees 388/. Kindle: Rupees 257.88

ISBN : Not Available


Imprint : Ist Edition

The current pandemic has exposed the total population to massive changes in their lives. It is a good time to reflect on the number of issues of life, namely personal, social, family, community, economic, health, political, spiritual, and mental health. In trying to make sense, one of the important sources to guide is the past experiences of humanity to pandemics. There is much that can be learnt from the many past pandemics of humanity in general and India in particular.

The book under review is special as it presents an “in-depth” understanding of the pandemics in India during the period of the 1st century (1817–1920). As noted by the author, “This book is the outcome of serendipity and timeliness to address the loss of memory about past pandemics, written while we were in the middle of one.” His hope is that “building such collective memory is useful to counter the current and future epidemics.”

The scope of the book, in five chapters, covers the: (i) the pandemics of the past, (ii) cholera, (iii) plague, (iv) influenza, and (v) COVID-19 in the rear view mirror. Each chapter is the outcome of an exhaustive research effort and extensively referenced (on an average of over 2000 references for the chapters 2–4). Chapter 2–4 presents the evidence about the social, economic, political ramifications of the specific pandemic, namely cholera, plague, and influenza.

The influenza pandemic of 1918, in India, is of special relevance to the current pandemic. Over 200 million, representing about 5% of the population, died during a period of few months. The magnitude can be understood when we recall that every day of the pandemic in 1918, over 200,000 died, in comparison to the less that number over 1 year in the current pandemic. The global loss was 2%. India was the worst affected with nearly 40% world deaths (over 5% of population). The narrative presents the pandemic was worsened by the famine of 1918, the World War 1. Different regions of the country were affected differently and the possible reasons for the same are described. The Bombay Presidency lost 1 million people-over 6% of the population. Deaths were the lowest in Europeans and Parsis, while it was double in Muslims and Caste Hindus, and six times in “Low Caste Hindus.” During the pandemic, not one family had escaped sickness. There were loss of teachers, laborers, and increase in orphans. The Princely State of Rajputana lost 10% of the population. However, there was a different death curve in South and East India.

In the pandemics, many leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore lost a member of the family. Poverty, starvation, and lack of security and shelter are the fifth columnists of the pandemic. The pandemic had impact on the coming to focus of Mahatma Gandhi in the Independence movement.

The book provides detailed account of the impact under a section, “the price of death” which is relevant to the understanding of the likely impact of the current pandemic. Protective factors identified are income level, nutrition, and literacy levels. Pandemic also brought renewed attention to the State of public finances and health. The number of medical institutes in 1918 jumped 3000–7500 by 1930's-a growth rate faster than that of the population. There was hike in wages due to labor shortages and “words strike and protest” were used more frequently in the 1920s than at any other time of history, between 1850 and 1950. Cooperative movement got a big boost. The trajectory of urban growth and regional development was altered by the pandemic changes in the roles and importance in labor market of women with greater rights like voting was an another change. Author outlines the four stages of pandemic-denial, confusion, acceptance, and erasure. There was recognition for the need for global cooperation and health. Migration is an essential part of epidemics. The authors have covered this aspect in greater detail in an another book.[1]

One of the book reviewer, Dikshit[2] notes: “Pandemics were the springboard for resistance to colonial rule in India. The plague outbreak in Poona coincided with the heightened tensions between the Congress and the British. Societal distress due to plague-induced lockdowns and colonial political injustice led to the rise of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. In Punjab, the volatile political situation and the high plague toll coincided with the temporary deportation of Lala Lajpat Rai and a rise in his stature. In UP, the plague swept through Azamgarh, Jaunpur, Ghazipur, and Ballia (migrants had then too walked home) that has emerged as the social justice belt.”

Similar changes were seen in other countries. For example, in the USA, “Another consequence of the pandemic in the US was that it pushed a number of women into nursing roles, which contributed partly to a vibrant movement for women's suffrage that had picked up over the course of World War I. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US constitution was passed, enabling women to vote in the national elections.”

Reading through Chapter 4 on Influenza, is like reading what we are experiencing during the current pandemic in India.

The author emphasizes the importance of collective memory-some of the important observations from the book [Box 1].

An English-language dictionary in 1775 defined “pandemic” as an adjective derived from Greek that meant “incident to a whole people.” This is what makes this book especially relevant to Social Psychiatry, which focusses on social factors and mental health. In addition, memory is important as it is the fundamental way in which knowledge accumulates. It was the memory of horrific plagues across centuries that prompted Europe to safeguard itself against the disease in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is the memory of recent influenza outbreaks in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore that pushed it to take strong preventive actions against COVID-19 in January 2020 itself, ahead of the curve compared to most countries. It is the recent memory of containing the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018 in Kerala in South India that placed the state in a superior position to tackle COVID-19 in 2020. Unfortunately, the history of pandemics, compared to wars, is mostly absent in education systems and public conversation. And thus, many parts of the world were caught thoroughly off-guard when they faced a major pandemic again in 2020.

Author notes, “The quest for control the pandemic transformed medical science. Public health systems were revolutionized cutting down mortality in some parts of the world and laying the foundation for it to happen after 1920 in other parts. The health surveillance system that started with a series of conferences to control pandemics from 1851, ultimately led to the formation of World Health Organization in 1948.”

It also provides the first comprehensive coverage of the world's greatest demographic disaster ever to descend upon a country in a short period of time – the influenza pandemic in India in 1918 – which claimed more lives than all the battle casualties of World War I and demonstrates the continuing relevance of learning from those times to tackle contemporary challenges, such as COVID-19.

I strongly recommend this book both as a source of lessons to be learnt from pandemics as well as to recognise the importance of documentation.

  References Top

Tumbe C. India Moving: A History of Migration. New Delhi: Penguin; 2018.  Back to cited text no. 1
Dikshit S. How Pandemics Shaped World History. New Delhi: Scroll; 2020.  Back to cited text no. 2


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