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Deja flu: Spanish Lady killed 14 million in British India a century ago – Times of India

Bombay of June 1918 was an inviting place for a killer virus. Besides being overcrowded, with a large working-class population living in disease-friendly conditions, the city also offered a dusty piece of urban real estate in which rain was absent and maladies like cholera, small pox and plague so rampant, they were officially categorised as “ordinary epidemic diseases”. So, it was perhaps inevitable that the vile “Spanish Lady”, as some books refer to the forgotten, deadly global pandemic of Spanish flu that is said to have killed nearly 50 million, would alight at the docks in Bombay at the end of May 1918 and devour infants and elders within a month that newspapers started referring to as “The Bombay Influenza” or “The Bombay Fever”.
Unlike plague, cholera and small pox – “Spanish Sickness”, as Europe called the epidemic then – came into Bombay “like a thief in the night,” in the words of JA Turner, then health officer of the city. On June 10, 1918, seven police sepoys at the Bombay docks were admitted to the police hospital with a “non-malarial” fever. Soon, employees of a shipping firm, the Bombay Port Trust, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the telegraph office, the mint and the Rachel Sassoon Mills, all fell ill. About June 24, Bombay was crippled by the epidemic whose symptoms were fever, pain in limbs and bones, bronchial inflation with congestion, eye pain and a sense of “feeling flat”.

Days into her arrival, the “Spanish Lady” doubled the death rate in Bombay and the cause given for the sudden rise in mortality was “respiratory disease”. Although it lasted four weeks before moving to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the Spanish flu, which was called so possibly because the uncensored Spanish press published accounts of the disease spreading through war-torn Europe, took 1600 lives in Bombay before it receded in July.
In September 1918, the Ganga started to bob with corpses as the Bombay Fever returned with manic vengeance. Spreading across Bombay Presidency, this virulent strain of the virus radiated north and east, claiming anywhere between 10 and 25 million lives in the country, roughly one-fifth to half of the global death toll. In its second wave, the Spanish Flu virus also targeted those between 20 and 40 years of age. Sidin Vidukut, author of the novel ‘The Bombay Fever’, wrote that more Indians died of it than soldiers and civilians combined in the First World War.
Railway lines carried the virus far and wide. Cities suffered more than rural areas. “All interest in living has ceased,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, struck by the fever that left him unable to speak or read while he was rising as a leader.
Later, an injection prepared in Assam reportedly immunized thousands. While the second wave retreated by December 1918, some reports hint at a third wave in India in early 1919. A 2012 study suggests that almost 14 million Indians in British-controlled parts of India had died in the pandemic.
In Video:When the Spanish Flu killed 14 million in British India a century ago