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In Times Of Covid-19, What Can India Learn From The Spanish Flu That Killed 18 Million Indians?



The Spanish flu killed between 17 and 18 million Indians, more than all the deaths in World War One. More women – mostly malnourished holed-up up in dirty and ill-ventilated dwellings died, while the men nursing them also became the victims. 

The Spanish flu is first believed to have affected the World War I soldiers of the United States, Britain, France and Germany. However due to strict censorship and to keep the morale of the fighting soldiers high, the countries engaged in World War I did not communicate about the disease to their people.

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In this case, the Spanish flu was not Spanish because Spain happened to be the one major nations that didn’t actively censor news of the pandemic, such as the infection of King Alfonso XIII, because it was not at war.

Over the centuries, the blame-game was started. Syphilis was called the French pox if you weren’t French. During the plague outbreaks of the Middle Ages, Jews were very often blamed for poisoning the water in the wells and expelled, and all sorts of other awful things happened to them.

And today, with the coronavirus, the blame is attributed to the Chinese.

The Covid-19 outbreak comes more than a century after the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, which had killed between 50 and 100 million people in the world and around 17 to 18 million people in India alone.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. With more than 30,000 deaths and over 600,000 positive cases, the virus has now spread to 175 countries.

Underprepared medical system

During 1918, when the Spanish Flu struck, India was woefully underprepared to take on such a pandemic and the indifferent and lackadaisical attitude of the British only made the matters worst.

However, in 2020, the Indian Government has shown quick response but the ground realities remain similar to what they were almost a century back.

According to the government, India has about 1 doctor per 1,500 citizens which is in sharp contrast with the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) which has recommended 1 doctor per 1,000 residents.

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However, in rural areas, where maximum Indians live and rely entirely on government hospitals, the ratio is 1 doctor for more than 10,000 people. If the coronavirus spreads to the rural areas, it could be disastrous for the country just like the Spanish Flu.

India also has 2.3 intensive care beds per 100,000 people which compared which China and the United States is short as they have 3.6 and 35 per 100,000 people. As for ventilators, the government doesn’t publish numbers. But experts quoted in Indian media estimate there are between 30,000 and 40,000 ventilators nationwide.

Second Wave

The first wave of the Spanish Flu seemed to have only affected the elderly and children and is eerily similar to coronavirus outbreak which is also severe amongst people with weak immune systems and with people above 80—years of age.

Researcher David Arnold, in his paper titled ‘Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India’, has written that the second wave was more fatal, killing adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

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“In one day alone, 6 October 1918, there were 768 registered deaths from influenza in Bombay city, more deaths than at the height of the plague epidemic in the 1890s and 1900s,” Arnold wrote. The disease later swept across India, spreading to Punjab and the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh).

This is an important point to remember for the world and especially for India because experts are worried about the possible resurgence of the coronavirus as China where the virus first appeared is beginning to ease the restrictions in the country in order to bring back normalcy.

Coronavirus & Spanish Flu

In India, when the Spanish Flu struck, people realized how abysmally poor the British authorities had provided for the health care of the indigenous population.

As a result, the people who attended to patients were freedom fighters, activists and grassroot workers who had united to overcome caste barriers and work together for independence. Once the pandemic passed, emotions against the British ran higher than before and people now rallied behind Gandhi that propelled India towards independence.

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Covid-19 pandemic too has once again united the nation, albeit for a different cause. People thronged to their balconies and cheered recently to show solidarity with India’s essential service providers.

Spanish flu caused widespread suffering and disrupted the economy and the infrastructure. Coronavirus is currently having the same impact with shops and offices shut and the economy in a downward spiral and growth forecast reduced to 2.5 per cent as against 5.2 per cent.

However, with the lockdown due to coronavirus, there is some good news too. The data from SAFAR and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) showed air in many cities with relatively safer levels of pollutants. The air quality in Delhi was at a satisfactory level, according to the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR).

The air quality in other metro cities also improved with a large number of vehicles remaining off the roads and shops closed due to the nationwide lockdown enforced to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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A video of a Spotted Deer running across an empty street in Dehradun went viral on social media after the 21-day national lockdown was implemented. Animals, in fact, have also been spotted every other day across cities such as the Nilgai that walked freely on a road in Noida. Perhaps there is a silver lining after all.

Difference between Spanish Flu and Covid-19

The coronavirus is not mutating significantly as it circulates through the human population, according to scientists who are closely studying the novel pathogen’s genetic code. That relative stability suggests the virus is less likely to become less dangerous as it spreads, and represents encouraging news for researchers hoping to create a long-lasting vaccine.

All viruses evolve over time, accumulating mutations as they replicate imperfectly inside a host’s cells in tremendous numbers and then spread through a population, with some of those mutations persisting through natural selection.

Peter Thielen, a molecular geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory who has been studying the virus alongside Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa and Benjamin Neuman of Texas A&M University at Texarkana, both of whom were on the international committee that named the coronavirus, told The Washington Post that scientists have found only about four to 10 genetic differences between the strains that have infected people in the United States and the original virus that spread in Wuhan out of 1,000 different samples which was a relatively small number of mutations for having passed through a large number of people.

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 “Just one pretty bad strain for everybody so far. If it’s still around in a year, by that point we might have some diversity,” Neuman said.

They told that the Flu is different from coronaviruses in the sense that— the flu virus genome is broken up into several segments, each of which codes for a gene. “When two flu viruses are in the same cell, they can swap some segments, potentially creating a new combination instantly — this is how the H1N1 swine flu originated,” Neuman said.

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An account given by the Sanitary Commissioner of Punjab is quoted here which said: “A recruit suffering from symptoms of influenza arrived at Narkanda and stayed a night with the Khansama of the hotel. Three days later the Khansama and his wife went down with influenza and soon passed it on to a blacksmith living nearby, who in a matter of few days passed it on to his family.

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The postal peons who served as a disseminating agency contracted the disease after visiting Khansama’s house and two of them died of it.” But before falling ill, the postal peons spread the disease and in a short time, the Hindustan Tibet Road was thoroughly infected.

So how the outbreak was eventually tamed after it had passed through the length and breadth of India? There are at least three possible causes, Prof Chandra, Director of the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University, told The Indian Express.

  • The people of Calcutta took preventive steps and began practising social distancing after they came to know about Spanish Flu and were better prepared than the people of Bombay and Madras who were unable to take any action because the disease caught people at the early locations.
  • The virus evolved as it spread across India, becoming milder in the process.
  • Differences in climate across India helped to stop the spread of influenza as a flu virus tends to not do as well in warm and moist conditions as compared to cooler, drier conditions.


As another pandemic is upon India, the importance of a quick initial response cannot be overstated. Like 1918 pandemic, locations close to the virus’s entry point will have a small amount of time to deal with the virulent pathogen while locations that are away from the entry point will have a longer span of time to deal with the virus.

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There is another important takeaway for India from the Spanish Flu. If it is indeed found to be true that the Spanish Flu reduced in its potency as it progressed because of awareness and the social distancing and other measures that people undertook then there is a very important need to be extra vigilant about hygiene and social distancing.


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US To Conduct Biggest War Drills In South China Sea Amid India-China Border Tensions

The war-drills by the two aircraft carriers and four other warships comes after China expanded flights near Taiwan, engaged a brutal border clash with India and approved a national-security law to limit Hong Kong’s ‘promised’ autonomy. 



Amid swelling India-China border tensions and Beijing’s unchecked belligerence in the South China Sea, the US is set to deploy two aircraft carriers with a clear message to China that it doesn’t appreciate Beijing’s hostility in the region, writes Alastair Gale for the WSJ.

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The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz are set to hold some of the U.S. Navy’s most comprehensive war drills in the South China Sea concurring with Chinese naval drills in the region.

With US-China tensions mounting over trade, COVID-19, and China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, U.S. officials said they wanted to challenge what they called Beijing’s illegitimate territorial claims.

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“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” said Rear Adm. George M. Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the USS Ronald Reagan, in an interview.

The war-drills by the two aircraft carriers and four other warships will include round-the-clock flights testing the striking ability of carrier-based aircraft. It is rare for the US and China to hold naval drills concurrently in the region.

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The WSJ report says that Washington has sought to project military power and send a signal to Beijing as China has been ramping up pressure on other regional countries. Beijing has expanded flights near Taiwan, engaged a brutal border clash with India and approved a national-security law to limit Hong Kong’s ‘promised’ autonomy.

U.S. officials say China may be attempting to take advantage of the U.S.’s struggles with the pandemic by stepping up its venture in the South China Sea. An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s claims in the sea—which overlap with those of other ASEAN nations—have no legal basis. China outrightly discarded the judgment and proceeded with its military buildup, writes WSJ.

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Asia Pacific

Ladakh Now, Kashmir Next: Why India-China War Is An Attractive Option For Many In India?

I now believe that a big event is needed for the resolution of the Kashmir issue, and the India-China war could be that big thing – J&K resident 



As India-China border standoff continues in Ladakh, people living in the Kashmir Valley see war as an attractive option. Kashmiris living in Jammu and Kashmir are rejoicing at the prospect of a war between India and China and expect something positive from the border clashes.  

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Kashmiris have taken to social media to share computer-generated images sarcastically reminding India about its inability to halt Chinese aggression. The pictures shared in Kashmir are completely in contrast to the anti-China images being shared in other parts of India.

Images shared include Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing a traditional Kashmiri garb preparing a traditional wazwan meal while another image shows Xi’s face superimposed over a local bus driver who is calling out to commuters that the bus is headed to Ladakh – the place where Indian and Chinese troops clashed.

Apart from the trolling on social media platforms, Kashmiris are also discussing the possibility of Chinese military occupying the disputed region. “Ladakh Kheow Chenan (Ladakh has been taken over by China)” is the most discussed topic these days. During a demonstration on June 21 in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir’s largest city, protesters mocked the police by chanting “Cheen aya Cheen aya (China is coming)” slogans.

According to experts at EurAsian Times, discontent and gloom amongst Kashmiris have been on the rise since the abrogation of Article 370. The scrapping of Article 370 took away the special status enjoyed by the Kashmir and divided the state into two Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.

Most importantly, the abrogation of Article 370 by PM Narendra Modi led Indian government quashed the possibility of an independent Kashmir, a dream envisaged by many Kashmiris.

Following the historic decision, Kashmiris living in the union territory have complained about increased military presence, detention of people on arbitrary grounds and, lack of internet services and lockdowns.

Speaking to Nikkei Asian Review, Waqas Ahmad from Srinagar said that abrogation of Article 370 was the last nail in the coffin and it broke the back of every Kashmiri and the fear of settlement of outsiders seems a reality to all Kashmiris.

So far, the Indian government has granted 25,000 domicile certificates to non-locals which allows them to get a residency certificate for education, employment and buying land.

For Kashmiris, China Brings Hope

While Chinese aggression has been condemned by Indians across the length and breadth of the country, Kashmiris have endorsed China’s aggressive move. For them, the introduction of China spells ‘hope’.

Younis Ali, a political science student in Pulwama, explains the logic behind supporting the Chinese. He says that Kashmiris have tried everything to forward their cause including peaceful protests and militancy, but neither has yielded any results.

”I now believe that a big event is needed for the resolution of the Kashmir issue, and the India-China war could be that big thing,” Ali says.

Specialists on Kashmir also agree with what locals say. Gowhar Geelani, an experienced journalist Kashmir, says that people are of the view that a new geopolitical situation could be to their advantage in terms of ending the political uncertainty in Kashmir. He also noted that Pakistan’s weak economy and military “has also led some to pin their hopes on a stronger China.”

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, explains that Kashmiri joy stems from seeing their oppressor bogged down by an emboldened, aspiring superpower that is a bitter rival of New Delhi and a close friend of Islamabad.

Speaking about human rights violation in the region, Ashok Swain a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, says that Kashmiris are excited about the Ladakh clash because of the perception that China has become a party to the Kashmir conflict, after experiencing hopelessness and despair with “the near silence of the international community over serious human rights violation.

According to a report on the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir that covers the first six months of this year, at least 229 killings in different instances of violence have taken place in the region.

The report cites “extrajudicial executions of at least 32 civilians in J&K, besides killings of 143 militants and 54 armed forces personnel.” It was put out by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a prominent human rights group.

Swain adds that with the introduction of China into the Kashmir conflict, India has lost the military and diplomatic advantage it enjoyed over Pakistan.  China’s open opposition Article 370 as well as the strength it showed in the border clash have revived the hope of Kashmiris of an open alliance between Pakistan and China on the Kashmir issue.

At present, New Delhi and Beijing are looking for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ladakh. Today PM Narendra Modi flew to Leh, Ladakh to take stock of the situation, boost the morale of troops and send a covert message to Beijing.

China was quick to announce its displeasure over Modi’s surprise visit to Ladakh and warned Indian from taking any action that may escalate the situation.

New Delhi and Beijing have been at each other’s throats since the first week of June. Both countries have engaged in the rapid military infrastructure development, troop buildup, air patrols, weapon deployment and even fistfights, which ended with casualties on both sides.

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