Pandemics and the collective consciousness

COVID-19, unlike the Spanish Flu, may eventually be remembered more for its economic and political impact

Updated - October 12, 2020 01:15 pm IST

Published - October 12, 2020 12:02 am IST

As the World Health Organization (WHO) assessed COVID-19 to be a pandemic on March 11 , I began to look at the impact of the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 globally, but especially on India. Like perhaps many others born in the middle of the last century, I recalled family members remembering that the disease had been widespread and mentioning the names of one or two persons who had died because of the influenza, the name they used for the pandemic. Certainly, no elder, who was an adult during the influenza, ever mentioned that it had caused millions of deaths. Nor, more significantly, did any textbook of Indian history focus on the great influenza or mention the enormous number of people who had died when it struck India.

The family archive

My search for material on the great influenza took me to an unpublished autobiography of Kailas Nath Katju, my grandfather. He was 31 in 1918 and had started to lay the foundations of a large law practice in the Allahabad High Court, and also take part in public life. Among pages devoted to family affairs in that period, prominent public events and Congress sessions that he had attended, I came across one paragraph on the influenza. He wrote: “Just as we were leaving Rau (a place near Indore in Madhya Pradesh; grandmother and he returned to Allahabad in the autumn of 1918 after spending a few months in Rau), the great influenza epidemic of 1918 began to afflict India. It was a veritable scourge, in six weeks, it was estimated six million people died of it. It made no distinction between rich and poor, prince and peasant, men and women. It swept the whole country like wildfire, and the number of persons who suffered from the disease must have exceeded crores. By the mercy of God, while all around there were any number of cases, none in our household at 15 Albert Road, suffered from it. It was a great blessing.”

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Overshadowed by events

Grandfather had begun the autobiography when he was in Naini jail in 1942 for participating in the Quit India Movement. Clearly, what he wrote about the great influenza was from memory. While he mentioned a figure of six million deaths, it is now believed that it led to around 17 million deaths in India before it was over. Remarkably, this enormous toll in human lives which amounted to around 5% of the then Indian population is not a part of the Indian consciousness. It has sunk almost without a trace amidst the events surrounding the anti-Rowlatt Act agitation, the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh and the Non-Cooperation Movement.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s biography written over an eight-month period from June 1934 illustrates how the ravages of the great influenza had quickly faded from national memory. Nehru devotes a chapter to the “suppressed excitement”, unrest and expectations in different sections of the Indian people at the end of the World War. He places these as the background for the resentment and anger caused by the Rowlatt Bills but entirely ignores the influenza’s human toll and consequent popular emotion that may have resulted from the colonial government’s inability to provide succour to the people. My grandfather too gives an account of the Rowlatt Act and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in his autobiography, but the paragraph on the influenza stands alone, unrelated to these developments.

If the great influenza had faded from popular memory in India, it did so in the rest of the world too. The developments of the 20th century that hold attention are the two World Wars, the rise of communism in Russia and its spread to other parts of the world, the Cold War, the end of colonialism and even the Great Depression — but not influenza. As Laura Spinney notes in her riveting book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World , “We do not see the most dramatic event of them all, though it’s right there before our eyes.” If this is true for the people at large, it is also true for academia. The great influenza interested only epidemiologists and medical historians; it was from the 1990s that experts from other disciplines started to seriously study it.


Some epidemics do become a part of the historical consciousness of a region such as the Black Death which devastated Europe in the 14th century. It made a lasting impact on west European society. Now, some social scientists have begun to assert that the influenza also impacted decisively in many ways on the last century, including in creating conditions in the Indian subcontinent that led to disenchantment with British rule; hence, contributing to its end. These claims still need to be thought through by historians though.

The impact of this epidemic

Will COVID-19 slip out of the global consciousness the same way that the Spanish Flu did? It is perhaps premature to ask that question when the pandemic is far from over, but one assertion, relevant to finding an answer to this question can safely be made. COVID-19’s toll, in human lives, will not be, in absolute numbers, leave alone as a percentage of the global population, anywhere near that of the great influenza. Hence, it may eventually be remembered more for its economic and political impact than the deaths on its account — substantial though they have been till now and will tragically only increase.

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Will the political and administrative ineptitude which led to migrant labour taking to the highways remain in the Indian consciousness? Only time will tell. As of now, the country seems to have moved on from the issue but those who have suffered will not easily forget their trek. And now even with COVID-19 raging through the country, the people’s attention appears no longer to be mainly on it. This is reflected in the print and electronic media which are giving more space to domestic political and economic issues, foreign policy and security challenges to the state and crime than to the pandemic.

Also read | The disasters that hit Bengal in the 1940s offer a warning for the present day

Virus in America

Ironically, the world’s pre-eminent country, the United States, has suffered the largest number of recorded infections and deaths because of COVID-19 . The manner in which U.S. President Donald Trump has handled the pandemic is a major election issue but some polls even there have suggested that the state of the U.S. economy is being accorded higher priority by many voters. That may now change with Mr. Trump and his wife, Melania, catching the virus . Certainly, the irresponsible personal conduct of an infected Trump may sway a substantial number of voters. Indeed, in the longer term, the fact that the holder of the world’s most powerful political office caught the virus may be one reason for COVID-19 remaining in the global consciousness; history records the fate of leaders in battles won and lost, not the countless unknown who perished in it. That is a sad fact.

Why did the great influenza not remain in the human consciousness? Perhaps because of the human instinct that life must carry on and painful memories of loss be thrust to the remote corners of the collective consciousness if not erased altogether. Would that happen to COVID-19 too?

Vivek Katju is a former diplomat

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