History Reviews

‘The Age of Pandemics’ review: Lessons for a pandemic

“A lot of good work comes out of professors in Ahmedabad, Sir,” said MP Derek O’Brien in the Rajya Sabha on February 4, 2021. He was referring to a book on migration by IIM-Ahmedabad professor Chinmay Tumbe. That was Tumbe’s first book. His second is a remarkable history of disease outbreak between 1817 and 1920 over 200 pages. The project began with a question his eight-year-old son posed. The author was struck that the little boy, attempting to make sense of his world, already knew the word “pandemic”.

In the century that this book covers, it is estimated that 40 million people in India died in three waves of pandemics — cholera, plague and influenza. Over 70 million died across the world.

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The epicentre

India remained the epicentre of these outbreaks. Despite this, The Age of Pandemics is not steeped in historical records. His description of the influenza pandemic in India in 1918 stands out. While much has changed in 100 years, much still remains the same.

The September 1919 issue of the Indian Medical Gazette carried an article by the commanding officer of the British Station Hospital in Calcutta, explaining the importance of eating healthy and getting enough exercise. Tumbe quotes: “Here I would like to discuss the value of the mask in the prevention of influenza... First of all, it cannot be worn at all times... Secondly, Leonard Hill’s researches show that the wearing of a mask is against the natural defensive mechanism of the mucous membrane of the respiratory tract... The warm moist atmosphere generated by wearing a mask is against this natural washing and immunizing defence.”

Norman White, the colonial government’s sanitation commissioner, also noted the importance of diet: “Malnutrition did appear to be a factor of importance in determining a fatal issue. No drugs appear to have any specific curative value but given nourishing food in a readily assimilable form, and care and attention, it was surprising what apparently desperate cases ultimately recovered.” This is the sort of report the pharmaceutical industry would not easily allow authorities to write 100 years later, as the world deals with COVID-19.

Public finances, health, agriculture, all came under scrutiny in colonial India too, a century ago, during the outbreak of the influenza pandemic which claimed 20 million lives. A speech by K.V. Rangaswamy Aiyyangar, Indian representative in the colonial legislative assembly in 1919, is quoted: “That the richest of agricultural countries should not be able to feed its own population is an irony of fate, a parallel to which would be hard to find. A slight delay in monsoon drives the people to death. And when is the government going to save and protect the population by prohibiting the export of foodstuffs?”

A century ago, the colonial government, dealing with World War I, was sending food produced in India to troops abroad, keeping Indians famished and vulnerable to the pandemic; in 2018, Union commerce minister Suresh Prabhu announced that the government was aiming to double agricultural export to $60 billion by 2022. The FAO’s ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020’ report showed that over 189 million Indians were undernourished; that’s 15% of the country’s total population. More than half of women in the reproductive age range are anaemic, even as the government plans to boost export of agricultural produce. It’s striking how little we learn from history.

There are nuggets strewn across this book that come as flashes of insight: Disposal of bodies had become a problem during the influenza outbreak. In Kumaon, bodies were thrown into the jungle. Tumbe quotes Jim Corbett, who held that this was what caused leopards to develop a taste for human flesh.

The Age of Pandemics; Chinmay Tumbe, HarperCollins, ₹599.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 9:29:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-age-of-pandemics-review-lessons-for-a-pandemic/article33820062.ece

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