How 1918 ‘Bombay Influenza’ carries lessons India must learn to tackle novel coronavirus

The Bombay influenza was responsible for the deaths of around 10 to 20 million people in India  

Published: Tuesday 17 March 2020

As India attempts to tackle the novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) — responsible for more than 7,000 deaths across the world — a similar outbreak in 1918 can be the source of many important lessons for the country.

The infamous ‘Spanish Influenza’ of 1918 has many parallels to the current outbreak, according to experts.

The ‘Spanish flu’, as it was also known, was initially noticed in military camps during World War I. Countries fighting the war — Britain, Germany, France and the US — however, kept it secret to reportedly keep the morale of the forces high.

When the disease emerged in Spain, the outbreak was reported with accuracy and was hence dubbed the Spanish Flu.

The flu reached the shores of Mumbai — then known as Bombay — on May 1918.

It was responsible for the deaths of around 10 to 20 million people in India: A fifth of the total number of 50 to 100 million deaths across the world.

The severity of the disease in Mumbai led researchers to call it ‘The Bombay Influenza’ or ‘The Bombay Fever’.

“In one day alone, 6 October 1918, there were 768 registered deaths from influenza in Bombay city,” wrote researcher David Arnold, in a paper titled Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India.

The Bombay Fever came in two waves.

The first wave affected children and elderly people. The second wave — much more aggressive — claimed the lives of people between the ages of 20 and 40.

Those infected with the disease had very violent deaths. They coughed blood, bled from their ears and noses and suffered extremely painful body aches.

Precautionary measures like self-isolation or self-quarantine were recommended to keep a check on the outbreak at that time.

Similarly, the union and state governments were spurred into issuing several advisories and precautions on March 17, 2020 for citizens, including the closure of movie theatres, shopping malls, postponement of major cultural events and curbing inessential public gatherings.

The government also suspended issuing visas to foreigners.

India must learn from China and South Korea and adopt two measures immediately, development economist and public health expert Amir Ullah Khan was quoted as saying by Livemint.

Large-scale gatherings should be banned and a massive information and awareness campaign on basic hygiene and social protection must be conducted, he said.

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