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Home / Opinion / Views /  As the second Covid wave hits hard, 1918 Spanish flu offers some lessons

There is an old saying: “If things are going out of control at present, look at the past." That’s how our ancestors always dealt with tough times. The rulers are getting cold feet over the devastation caused by the second wave of covid. But they are not even ready to take a look at history to learn any lessons. As a result, by Sunday, 1,47,88,109 people in India were in the grip of this deadly disease, while 1,77,150 have lost their lives.

At such a rare time, for the rulers, I want to quote one such great story documented in the pages of history. This story also has a lesson for the common people.

On 28 September 1918, the Liberty Loan Parade was organized in Philadelphia to economically support the soldiers who fought in World War I. Intellectuals opposed the event. They were of the view that since the Spanish flu was still going strong, a crowded event may result in a new series of disasters. Ignoring such objections, Philadelphia public health director Wilmer Krusen allowed the event. It was a matter of patriotism, so more than 200,000 people gathered. What followed was along expected lines. Within the next few days, 47,000 fresh cases were reported and 12,000 people lost their lives. The second wave of Spanish flu ended up wreaking havoc on 25- to 35-year-olds. In October that year, 1,95,000 people had lost lives in the US alone.

Just relate that tragedy to what is happening in India today. In September 2020, when the first wave of covid was on its last legs, our rulers were applauded. A few were happy over the possibilities of a vaccine, while others were hoping for a bounceback in the economy. Many states started promoting tourism, while others were busy in organizing events such as the Kumbh. Elections were also to be held in five states. From the top to the bottom, all leaders started attending huge election rallies to woo voters. In such a situation, if any expert had tried to advise them to be cautious, he would have been ridiculed. The warnings of those doctors and scientists were also ignored, whose throats had dried up stating that the threat of the pandemic was not over yet.

As if the demon of covid was preparing to attack again, waiting for our sons and daughters to come out of their shells. This time it attacked with double strength. Earlier, elders were the target, now newborns to senior citizens were all equally vulnerable. Health services have collapsed, there are not sufficient numbers of ventilators, oxygen and essential medicines are scarce, while hospitals do not even have beds for serious covid patients.

Until now, we used to tremble at the pictures of the way dead bodies were buried in the US, Brazil and Italy. Now our cities are in the same category. Shocking news came from the Harishchandra Ghat in Kashi—fearing that they may fall prey to the infection while waiting in the long queues, people paid an exorbitant price to the descendants of the ‘Dom Raja’ to get them to perform the last rites. Similarly, in Surat, so many bodies had to be burnt in one day that the chimneys of the electric crematorium furnace melted. In Raipur, too, on an average 55 bodies were cremated daily. Images of long queues at funerals in Lucknow went viral on social media. To prevent the proceedings from getting captured on camera, local officials covered up the crematorium with makeshift walls. They said this was done to prevent people from getting “distracted". Even in the national capital, people had to wait for five to eight hours for the last rites of their loved ones. This is the plight of all the cities in north and west India.

In such a situation, it is the right time to question our political class, who were busy in electoral and religious events. Why didn’t they do anything when there was a ‘lean period’ during the pandemic? They knew that another wave was coming. It was a time when we could have equipped our hospitals and increased the number of laboratories. If the government did not have the resources, it could have invited private players with the necessary regulations. When privatization can be promoted in other areas, why not in this? This could not happen. As the second wave is heading towards its peak, we also need to know that the Spanish flu attacked three times. Unfortunately, sometimes history repeats itself. What could not have been done between September 2020 and February should be done now.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday took a sensible initiative. He asked Swami Awadheshanand to keep the Kumbh symbolic. This was a necessary step. Uttarakhand has recorded a nearly 90x increase in covid cases during this period. Most saints have accepted the prime minister’s request. This may help prevent any further adverse events.

In contrast, the Election Commission has decided to continue with the poll schedule in West Bengal, where the rate of infection has gone up by 560% due to public gatherings, while three rounds of voting are yet to take place. Statistics related to the infection spread show that if decisive steps are not taken even now, things could spiral out of control. The situation there is such that if decisive steps are not taken immediately, history will compare our present political leadership with Krusen.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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