Spanish Flu: “In the Spring of 1918 soldiers in the trenches complained of sore throats, headaches, and general malaise. Most recovered but a few died. Soldiers called it the Spanish Flu. By Summer, soldiers’ symptoms became much worse. One in five who caught the virus developed pneumonia or blood poisoning. Many died. When the disease turned them blue, almost all of them died. The second wave of epidemic (in Summers) — the first was in Spring — spread quickly. More than 70,000 American troops on the Western Front were hospitalised; one-third died.”
If the disease developed in the trenches of the ‘Great War’ as WWI was called, one cannot say; but it would be prudent to assume that conditions were rife for the disease to initiate and spread. Largely a trench warfare, minus any means of manoeuvre (aircraft or tank), it depended on suicidal infantry charges which were easily mowed down by machine-guns of the opposing side. For months and years poorly provisioned soldiers — some from India and Africa, unprepared for the cold and wet weather of Europe — cohabited in the trenches. Disease thus was rampant.
“By the end of the Summer the infection reached Germany and over 400,000 civilians died there. First cases in Britain appeared in Glasgow in May 1918 and in a few months the virus killed 228,000 Brits. The epidemic spread through the United States in September and by early December about 20 million Americans were infected; 450,000 died. That was not the worst. India suffered the largest toll. First cases appeared in Bombay in June 1918 followed by in Karachi and Madras. In one year 16 million Indians died. In a year 500 million (world over) were infected and 40 million died.”
The armistice was signed in November 1918 to end the ‘Great War’ which killed between 8-10 million. It was still some months away when the virus had already reached newer shores with returning soldiers. The deaths caused by the pandemic were at least five times higher than the four-year war if not more. It raged on three full years before subsiding. SARS, MERS and Covid-19 belong to the same root of disease and though the Spanish Flu was different in its constitution (H1N1) it continues to reappear every so often; the last being in 2009-10. There is vaccine to ward off H1N1 to varying effects but corona-based disease continues to return and ravage, albeit in different strains.
1896 had seen the rise of the Bubonic plague which was a rat- and flea-infested disease and found ripe the squalid environment of Bombay slums to find root. It killed tens of thousands forcing others to flee the city. Unused to hygienic or clean living people agitated and rebelled against government edicts on cleanliness protocols. An English Commissioner of the city was murdered by those unwilling to change their lives to control and mitigate the disease when he sought to intervene to ensure compliance.
We can more or less place our current predicament around these episodes in history. Not much has changed in South Asia. We are as dirty and our slums are only more numerous and squalid. The incidence of Covid is prevalent and we are only at the beginning of the cycle. Thus, we have the opposite of mitigation and containment — the disease will only spread uncontrollably with the opening of the mosques and the Bazaar. There is no cure for the disease except changing societal behaviour and attitudes. Of it there appears no possibility. Hence we are at no different place than in 1896 or 1918.
One other thing of note from this historical narrative is the duration of the pandemic. While its intensity will vary with season of the year and its geographical location but it never goes away till it goes away. Same was with SARS; and MERS is very much an alive microbe. Anecdotal estimates suggest Covid-19 may be around for at least another year and a half finding periodic surges. Whether a vaccine will be found or help, remains moot. If it wasn’t for SARS and MERS despite the world having had to deal with the menace of both why and how may one repose confidence that one will be available to fight off Covid-19?
If so, how may we learn to relive? Life styles will have to change. Even if there is reluctance now the certainty of death will make humans behave differently. Our societal norms and functioning environments of necessity will have to be different. We shall have to learn discipline and integrate it in our ways. Our leisure and our familial traditions will alter; will need to alter. The longer we subsist with our known ways the longer will the pandemic last, and kill. If a vaccine emerges at all, the virus will mutate faster to survive. Remember it is a living cell. We shall have to learn to coexist till we can build sure defences against it. And then another form may emerge.
A lot will go in fiscal terms into the health sector, this year and the next and possibly for a couple more after that. This and the next year’s budgetary plans are thus already pre-destined and spent. It will come at the cost of three of our main expenditure heads: debt, development and defence. Things will need to fundamentally change in how we do things, to keep society alive. Wars and conflicts and policies of aggressive pursuit will have to give way on both sides of our borders. Our military mission of necessity will need to be defensive only to keep our borders intact and secured from any external or internal mischief. Beyond that will be impractical and unaffordable.
The economy will decimate under Covid with sparse remnants which we could then use to rebuild. With revenue significantly reduced the resource for health will have to be found. The need to provide for health will prevail over all else. Till economy re-builds — three years after Corona — servicing debt will be impossible. We better prepare our debtors to this increasing possibility. Only the informal and irregular subsistence economy will survive, and thank God for it. The IMF and FATF will and have already become irrelevant. We may as well free ourselves from any form of contrived bind, either imposed or perceived. But for it we shall have to drastically change how we view our national interest and societal purpose. Our vital interest will be only one — to survive in the short-term. This is nature’s way of imposing rationality to our routine pursuits.
This is also an opportune moment to restructure and transform government to what we need. Internal cohesion and service to the grassroots will be essential for our internal stability and we may consider optimising bureaucracy and representative composition of local governments to offer a cheap, smaller and an efficient system of governance. There is little space for parallel structures. This is a time for transformation. Fear or tribal interests should not hold us back. Life is to be lived, Covid or not.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2020.
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