Coronavirus Outbreak: Lessons from plague during British rule show enforcing lockdown is difficult; India needs to plan for worst-case scenario
The management of the great plague of 1896-1921, during which over ten million Indians died, helps understand the gargantuan challenge ahead.
Early in March, 1898, plague inspectors moved into the Muslim weavers’ quarter in Mumbai’s Byculla, lining up suspected patients for examination—at gunpoint. Like had occurred so often, the father of a young girl refused to allow the male doctors to search his child for signs of infection. Faced with a growing, angry mob, the police opened fire; many local residents were killed. Europeans across the area came under attack, and soldiers, armed with cannon, had to be called out to seal the streets.
Even as India’s police leadership sifts through the lessons of Sunday’s Janata Curfew, there are disturbing signs securing public compliance coronavirus lockdowns won’t be easy. Large crowds gathered in cities from Indore to Ahmedabad and Chennai, some even dancing in the streets, evidently confusing the coronavirus shutdown with an unscheduled festival holiday.
Police forces across India have a—regrettably—rich body of experience in enforcing curfews, but there’s simply no template for an orderly nationwide lockdown. The management of the great plague of 1896-1921, during which over ten million Indians died, helps understand the gargantuan challenge ahead.
Acacio Gabriel Viegas’ first house call on the morning of 18 September, 1896, had been to a middle-aged woman in Mumbai’s Vor Gaddi, running a fever. The woman, the Goa-born, Mumbai-educated doctor recorded, was delirious; a lymph node in her groin was enlarged. Later that day, visiting a boy with similar symptoms, Viegas then learned that more than 50 South Mumbai residents had been claimed by the strange illness over the past month. In the godowns of Mandovi, rats were crawling out—and dying.
That evening, under the microscope in his laboratory, Viegas saw evidence that left no doubt about the killer: the bipolar stain identifying the bacillus as yersinia pestis. A long, grim battle with the plague had begun.
Policing also faced its first test. Tens of thousands of Mumbai workers claimed their back-pay and headed home. Large numbers of merchants left, too, travelling by sea or rail. Inside three months, the plague had hit Karachi and Pune—carried by the refugees. Indeed, historian Aditya Sarkar has recorded, half the city emptied in the wake of the plague. Early in 1897, the whole of the Konkan, Kathiwar and Kutch in Gujarat and urban centres in Sindh were recording fatalities. The disease soon spread north, ravaging Punjab.
To make things worse, a drought-hit southern Maharashtra in late 1896, leading to a flood of agricultural workers back into Mumbai. Health authorities estimated that between 250,000-300,000 immigrants came to the city in April, May and June, 1897, alone.
Authorities responded by screening travellers—causing, historian Natasha Sarkar’s magisterial work shows, sharp tensions with the community. In 1898, inspections of train passengers for plague became a fraught racial issue. Indian women were forced to lift their sarees off their upper bodies on railway platforms, to check for plague buboes; Europeans were not. Indians wearing dhotis, in particular, were singled out for inspections.
“Plague germs can penetrate the celestial dress,” one Indian writer sardonically observed in 1899, “but the plague measures cannot. When you travel, do not fail to put on pantaloons, a short coat, and a hat or a night cap; have a cheroot in your mouth and a copy of the Bombay Times or the Lahore Gazette in your hand”.
Even Indian élites, though, suffered: coming home from a vacation in Matheran, justice Badruddin Tyabji was held at Mumbai for examination, but his European subordinate was allowed to go home. Tyabji even complained about the treatment of his daughters by plague on a Baroda-Mumbai train.
Like in 1896, containing large-scale population flows will prove a real challenge: Even though the government has moved to restrict trains, millions of rural workers now trapped in cities will seek alternate routes home, especially in the case incomes are severely hit by prolonged lockdowns. Immiserated peasants, in turn, are likely to throng cities, hoping for livelihoods and access to basic medical services.
Today, as then, law-enforcement needs plans to deal with this crisis—and this is just a small part of the problem.
Largescale isolation of the ill, and the sealing off of badly-affected areas, precipitated some of the sharpest conflicts of 1896 onwards. In August 1897, the Plague Committee began removing entire neighbourhoods from their homes. Their homes were then disinfected, in military-style operations: “We treated houses practically as if they were on fire,” one official recorded, “discharging into them from steam engines and flushing pumps quantities of water charged with disinfectants”.
Plague-infested villages were also cordoned off or evacuated, and the entire site disinfected. Local residents were given just 48 hours to evacuate their homes and allowed to carry food for two months.
Inside the segregation camps, inmates were provided rations; one member of each family was allowed to go out and work, on condition they returned by nightfall. The camps sought to respect existing caste and religious distinctions: in Punjab’s Khattar Kalan, Brahmins, Jats and Darzis occupied one camp; Dalits a second; Muslims a third.
The segregation camps solved one plan administrators will face should the pandemic drag out: securing incomes for affected communities. But segregation only succeeded because of the largescale use of coercive power and engendered hatred of the State.
From the outset, the segregation of patients into hospitals was also contested by communities. Part of the reason was caste: hospitals, historian David Hardiman has noted, were to many Indians, “places of pollution, contaminated by blood and faeces, inimical to caste, religion and purdah.” Even though caste-specific hospitals soon sprang up, complaints were rife: the Kesari of 6 April, 1897, told the story of a Brahmin patient who lived on milk in the hospital because his food had been polluted by a Shudra’s touch.
There were other problems, too, however: families were unused to long periods of separation from their loved ones in isolation wards, and high rates of death in hospitals sparked off rumours patients were being deliberately killed. In February, 1987, the Poona Vaibhar reported rumours that the “Sarkar, finding its subjects unmanageable, is devising ways to reduce their number.” Local residents, it claimed, think “hospitals are under the management of new doctors who put poison in medicine”.
In one 1987 episode, medical staff at Mumbai’s Arthur Road Hospital were attacked to free patients held in plague wards—though, oddly, the violence terminated when factory sirens sounded to signal the end of the lunch hour, and workers went back to their jobs at the mills.
Through the plague years, though, such violence became commonplace. In 1896, Mumbai mill-workers rioted after Plague Committee staff sought to move local women to the hospital. Five years later, in April, 1901, riots broke out in Sialkot’s Shahzada village, forcing authorities to use force. In Shahjahanpur, near Lucknow, a local official shot a doctor, his assistant, police officials and then himself—killing 12 to protest the shame of purdah being violated.
Like in other times of catastrophic upheaval, the endemic social conflict eventually emerged as a threat to political order itself. In Gujarat’s Khera district, wandering religious preachers even proclaimed that the British Empire had collapsed south of the Mahi river—the plague line. Locals rose up in revolt, to chose a new ruler, leading to bloodshed when police intervened.
Plague riots broke out in the Punjab, Mysore and Calcutta; the colonial officials WC Rand and CE Ayerst were assassinated in Mumbai by early Hindu nationalists.
For anyone familiar with the state of the Indian police, there’s little reason to be sanguine about the prospects of India’s law enforcement containing largescale tensions, of the kind engendered in 1896. India should have 192 police officers per 100,000 population—well below the United Nations-mandated norm of 250:100,000. But Bureau of Police Research and Development statistics India actually has 150.80 police officers per 100,000 population, below the sanctioned level even for 2007.
The implosion of the Haryana Police along caste lines in 2016, searingly documented in former Director-General of Police Prakash Singh’s official investigation; the failure of intelligence services and police to contain violence after the arrest of Ram Rahim Singh; the near-collapse of the State across southern Kashmir in 2018: together, they show the law-enforcement system on which the Indian Republic rests is at breaking point.
Even though the central police forces and Indian Army can provide backup to police forces, experience in communal and caste riots has taught administrators that they lack the granular local knowledge needed to contain complex social tensions.
To do this effectively, police, leaders need to begin granular planning for the worst case: to anticipate exactly how neighbourhoods and entire cities will be locked down; population movements restricted; hospitals and medical staff protected; provision of supplies and food conducted in an orderly manner.
For most citizens, the frontlines of the war against the coronavirus are manned by medical personnel, public health workers and sanitation services are on the front. That frontline could crumble, though, unless it has a robust backbone.
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