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India 1918 - 2020: Managing epidemics. How did they evolve? We must focus on the “vulnerabilities”

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

In 1918, India was hit hard by the Spanish flu, which caused the deaths of almost 18 million people (6% of its national population). Today, India is facing a new epidemic, where the population possesses a large number of “vulnerabilities”.


A century ago, the caste system determined indirectly which levels of the population fell to the dramatic consequences of the flu. The virus spread at a rapid pace throughout the country, starting from the merchant ports and then traveling further inland. The lower castes, living in unhygienic conditions and unable to afford medical care, were the first to be affected. Another inequality, that of gender, was apparent throughout the epidemic. Women were particularly vulnerable during the outbreak and the ensuing period. They did not have priority in the event of a limitation of food and other resources, and thus were more likely to become victims of hunger. India is one of the only countries with a higher epidemic toll for women than for men.

New era, new problems. On the 3rd of January 2020, the first cases identified in the Kerala region were isolated, halting the spread of the virus. In addition, India established total containment on March 25th. All types of transportation were stopped, which also contributed to secure the health of the country. However, confinement brutally stopped economic activity in a country without unemployment insurance where more than 90% of the working population does not have a formal contract. Here begins the exodus of daily workers, now precarious towards their native regions, in difficult conditions where hundreds give up their lives just to make ends meet. The coronavirus crisis has also made Islamophobia manifest: a Muslim gathering of nearly 8,000 people might have caused the proliferation of the virus in the country to accelerate. According to the Minister of Health, a third of the cases of COVID-19 in India are due to this manifestation. Discrimination is accentuated. India, however, seems to have effectively managed the epidemic: on the 4th of May, the country began its first measures to relieve the nation of confinement, with an official toll of 1,300 deaths and 40,000 contagions. By way of comparison, France currently has 25,000 deaths for 131,000 contagions. However, this parallel deserves a certain critical step back. Keep in mind that this global health crisis is causing social injustice everywhere.

Author: Lucie Geisser

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