Mahatma Gandhi (centre) visits Muslim refugees at Purana Qila in New Delhi on September 22, 1947, as they prepare to depart to Pakistan a month after the signing of India and Pakistan's Independence from British rule on August 14-15, 1947. Image Credit: AFP

Coronavirus is the global pandemic of our times. But Spanish flu remains the deadliest in modern history, killing at least 50 million people and infecting more than 500 million. The 1918 H1N1 virus played a critical role in altering the course of India’s history.

Mahatma Gandhi, the chief architect of India’s independence, was one of the millions who contracted the Spanish flu. If he had not survived, India’s struggle to shed the British colonial yoke would have taken a drastically different route. Gandhi went to spearheaded the movement that bought India independence.

The flu that killed an estimated 18 million Indians — the largest in any country in the world — was also instrumental in uniting the people against the British.

When the pandemic struck India, it became very clear that the British had ignored the healthcare in the country. The medical infrastructure was a shambles.

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Walter Reed Hospital flu ward during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, in Washington DC. The pandemic killed an estimated 25,000,000 persons throughout the world. Image Credit: Shutterstock

In an interview with Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times, Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world, says: “People were dying in droves and in the absence of any British doctors. The British doctors…were very often at the front as well the hole was even more glaring.

That vacuum during a medical emergency brought Indians together to fight the deadly disease.

“The people who stepped into that [medical] breach tended to be the militants, the grass roots militant activists for independence who had already worked out how to cross caste barriers and work together for a different goal, i.e. independence,” Spinney says.

The death and misery wrought by the pandemic fuelled the anger against the colonisers. And people rallied behind Gandhi and the independence movement.

Spinney says: “Once the pandemic passed, emotion against the British was even higher than it had been before. And secondly, those people were far more united than they had been. And now they came together behind Gandhi. He found that suddenly, he had the grass roots support that he had been lacking until then.”

Spanish flu caused widespread suffering and disrupted the economy and infrastructure. But it did provide the thrust that propelled India towards independence. That sure is a silver lining in what was a tsunami of death.

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