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Coronavirus What India can learn from the deadly 1918 flu

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Coronavirus What India can learn from the deadly 1918 flu


Spanish flu

The highly infectious Spanish flu had swept through the ashram in Gujarat where 48-year-old Gandhi was living, four years after he had returned from South Africa.

He rested, stuck to a liquid diet during “this protracted and first long illness” of his life. When news of his illness spread, a local newspaper wrote: “Gandhi’s life does not belong to him – it belongs to India”.

Outside, the deadly flu, which slunk in through a ship of returning soldiers that docked in Bombay (now Mumbai) in June 1918, ravaged India.

The disease, according to health inspector JS Turner, came “like a thief in the night, its onset rapid and insidious”. A second wave of the epidemic began in September in southern India and spread along the coastline.


By early July in 1918, 230 people were dying of the disease every day, up nearly three times from the end of June.

“The chief symptoms are high temperature and pains in the back and the complaint lasts three days,” The Times of India reported, adding that “nearly every house in Bombay has some of its inmates down with fever”.

Workers stayed away from offices and factories. More Indian adults and children were infected than resident Europeans. The newspapers advised people to not spend time outside and stay at home.

“The main remedy,” wrote The Times of India, “is to go to bed and not worry”. People were reminded the disease spread “mainly through human contact by means of infected secretions from the nose and mouths”.