Chinmay Tumbe on his new book that investigates major pandemics, and how they influenced India, the world

In 'The Age of Pandemics', Tumbe specifically focuses on the period between 1817 to 1920, which witnessed nearly five percent of the mid-point global population —or 70 million people — being wiped out by pandemics.

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya December 08, 2020 10:40:08 IST
Chinmay Tumbe on his new book that investigates major pandemics, and how they influenced India, the world

The cover of Chinmay Tumbe's latest book The Age of Pandemics. Image via HarperCollins India.

"This has been a year unlike any other, and pandemic is the word that has connected the worldwide medical emergency to the political response and to our personal experience of it all," Merriam-Webster wrote in their announcement report, declaring 'pandemic' as their word of the year.

The coronavirus outbreak, however, isn't the world's — or India's — first ever encounter with the word or the phenomenon. Between 1870 to 1920, more than 40 million people died in India alone, owing to three major diseases — cholera, plague and influenza. Noted author and professor of Economics at IIM Ahmedabad, Chinmay Tumbe's latest book The Age of Pandemics presents a crucial account of major pandemics in the past and how they have shaped India and the world.

"We say, history does not repeat itself, but it can rhyme. Every pandemic is unique but there can be some broad patterns that emerge from past pandemics, as this book documents," says Tumbe in an email interaction with Firstpost. He points out how the migration crisis during the lockdown was almost "foreseeable", given how previous pandemics have affected the Indian population.

Chinmay Tumbe on his new book that investigates major pandemics and how they influenced India the world

Chinmay Tumbe (right) and the cover of his latest book The Age of Pandemics. Images via HarperCollins India.

One of the major points that Tumbe highlights early in his book is the fact that our collective memory as a race, is rather oblivious to diseases involving mass mortality, but keeps a detailed account of wars, floods, and famines. "Other disasters destroy not only lives, but also property. Death by infectious diseases is more silent, and visually not well documented in history," Tumbe says, adding that the 14th-century plague, popularly known as ‘Black Death’, is well established in the European consciousness, but outside that "most pandemics have escaped memorialisation as done in the case of wars."

The Age of Pandemics is, in fact, one of those few books on the phenomenon that has been written during one, and for that Tumbe says he worked nonstop in order to release the book in 2020 itself. "I’ve always thought it odd that there was no book-length treatment of the major pandemics that struck India in the past. I had collected some information on the 1918 influenza pandemic. I tweeted about that on the day WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, and it got some traction," Tumbe informs. He has also dedicated his book to a friend who lost his life to COVID-19.

The word pandemic has its etymological roots in Greek, formed as a combination of the words 'pan' (meaning "all" or "every") and 'demos' (meaning "people"), therefore literally meaning something pertaining to "all the people". Pandemic, for the longest time, has been used interchangeably with another similar word — epidemic. In his book, Tumbe explains what sets a normal disease apart from an epidemic, and how an epidemic is different from a pandemic. He writes:

"For a disease to become an epidemic, it must suddenly affect many members of a community at the same time. Time, that is, simultaneity, matters more than space, or geographic coverage. Simultaneity is often matched with seasonality, as many of us realise during our visits to the doctor's clinic when the seasons change. When that happens periodically and is localised, those diseases are considered to be endemic to the region. An endemic disease may or may not turn epidemic in a given year depending on the rate of transmission between human beings or that between vectors, like mosquitoes, and humans. Thus, while malaria is endemic in many parts of the world, it can quickly turn into an epidemic if disturbed environmental conditions in a year or in a particular time period lead to stagnant pools of water suitable for mosquito breeding.

But for an epidemic to become a pandemic, both time and space are equally important, that is, the disease has to spread across a sufficiently wide geographical region to be declared a pandemic, What constitutes as 'wide' has typically been a judgement call involving either countries or continents as the regional units."

In order to shape this book, Tumbe relied heavily on a variety of sources such as letters, memoirs, old reports, oral histories, mortality statistics and burial records, to name a few. Through his research, Tumbe also came across the earliest evidences of pandemics or epidemics in India. "The major pandemics before cholera struck in a big way in 1817, that is the 6th and 14th-century plagues, tended to miss India or at least we have little evidence of that as of now. However, I do argue in the book that a reference to rodents in the Arthashashtra, compiled at least 1,800 years ago or so, is so striking that it almost certainly points towards plague in that period. This seems to have been missed by medical historians till date," says Tumbe, adding how even older texts of Sushruta and Charaka in ancient India describe diseases in great detail, but evidence of pandemics, as such, is limited.

He further continues, "The words mari or maari have been used for epidemics for many centuries now, in large parts of India. Mahamaari, now used for the word ‘pandemic’, is clearly mentioned in the 19th century to describe plague in northern India."

Tumbe in this book, specifically focuses on the period between 1817 to 1920, which in terms of India's tryst with pandemics is a significant time. "This period witnessed nearly five percent of the mid-point global population being wiped out by pandemics, or 70 million people. That figure for 1920-2019, for instance, was only around one percent. No other time period has such a high rate, barring perhaps the 6th and the 14th centuries. Second, there were three pandemics — cholera, plague and influenza — overlapping with each other for certain time periods, which rarely happened before or after. And third, the global spread of the pandemics was much wider than earlier," Tumbe points out.

Then why was this period so neglected and why was its significance so overlooked? In The Age of Pandemics, the writer talks about how this particular time period has received little to no attention. He, however, also cites possible reasons behind this downplay. This period, in fact, overlapped with a time marked with enormous development in industrial, infrastructural and economic sectors. Globalisation and urbanisation were on the rise, and they witnessed an upward curve until World War I in 1914. 'The Great Divergence' in the 19th century also shifted the centre of socioeconomic wealth and power from China, India and the rest of the world, to western Europe and North America.

This period has been demarcated by various other names, notably in Eric Hobsbawm's Modern History series as The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, and in Christopher Bayly's work as The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. Also, unlike the past pandemics, the western world was not the epicentre of the outbreaks this time, thereby clearly, yet curiously, wiping out this period of roughly 200 years from global consciousness. So, while extensive documents exist, alluding to the significant economic growth and industrial development across the globe in these years, there is not much information on the three major pandemics that claimed lives close to, or even surpassing the fatalities of the two world wars combined.

India at that time was not just dealing with the pandemics, but also British colonisation. Few years down the line, the first war of Independence in 1857 had also triggered movements and mobilised people far and wide across the subcontinent. Both colonisation and globalisation were required to keep trade channels open. This, at times, meant looking away from quarantines that could have dampened pandemics.

However, what is quite interesting to note is how people sent out information or spread awareness (as little as it might have been) around the diseases those days. Tumbe talks about one such particular story: "There is a vigorous debate among historians about what exactly the mysterious circulation of chapatis noted in the middle of the 19th century represented. One view is that chapatis were circulated as a way to warn neighbouring villages of oncoming epidemics, especially cholera. What is certain, is that this happened in 1857, before the famous 'revolt', which also happened to be a major cholera outbreak year."

He calls the 1918 influenza outbreak the "greatest single demographic shock that the human species has ever received," as it alone claimed over 40 million lives. This is also around the same time when the freedom struggle in India was gathering steam. "The heavy toll of the influenza pandemic galvanised Gandhi’s rise after 1918 and also the labour movement (since bargaining power of labour increased tremendously with mass mortality of labour), which were both closely tied with the freedom movement," he says.

After all these years, as we are living through a pandemic yet again, there is a lot to learn from the bygone era. Regarding where we stand today in our everyday battle against COVID-19, Tumbe refers to what the Nobel-Prize winning scientist Joshua Lederberg had once said about how we have a good grip on handling bacterial infections, but still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding viruses. He agrees with Lederberg and says, "Pandemics should be seen as a ‘natural evolutionary phenomenon’. One cannot eradicate pandemics; only curtail them."

He concludes with an idea that he stresses on a lot in his book: "We have to build collective memory so that we pass through the next pandemic with minimal damage."


Chinmay Tumbe's 'The Age of Pandemics, 1817-1920' has been published by HarperCollins India, and released on 2 December.

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