1918 flu pandemic in India

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1918 flu pandemic in India was the outbreak of an unusually deadly influenza pandemic in India between 1918-1920 as a part of the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic. Also referred to as the Bombay Influenza or the Bombay Fever in India,[1][2] the pandemic is believed to have killed up to 14 -17 million people in the country, the most among all countries.[3][4] David Arnold (2019) estimates at least 12 million dead, about 5% of the population.[5] The death toll in India's British-ruled districts was 13.88 million.[6]

In India, the pandemic broke out in Bombay in June 1918,[7][8] with one of the possible routes being via ships carrying troops returning from the First World War in Europe.[9][7] The outbreak then spread across the country from west and south to east and north,[9] reaching the whole of the country by August.[10] It hit different parts of the country in three waves with the second wave being the highest in mortality rate.[7][10] The death rate peaked in the last week of September 1918 in Bombay, in the middle of October in Madras, and in the middle of November in Calcutta.[8]

The outbreak most severely affected younger people in the age group of 20 - 40, with women suffering disproportionately.[10] According to the Sanitary Commissioner's report for 1918, the maximum death toll in a week exceeded 200 deaths in both Bombay and Madras.[8] The spread of the disease was exacerbated by a failed monsoon and the resultant famine-like conditions, that had left people underfed and weak, and forced them to move into densely populated cities.[2] As a result of the severity of the outbreak, the year 1919 saw a reduction of births by around 30 percent.[10] The population growth of India during the decade from 1911-1921 was 1.2%, the lowest among all decades under the British Raj. In his memoirs the Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi, wrote "Ganga was swollen with dead bodies." The sanitary commissioner's report for 1918 also noted that all rivers across India were clogged up with bodies,[7] because of a shortage of firewood for cremation.[10]

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India's independence struggle, was also infected by the virus.[4] The pandemic had a significant influence in the freedom movement in the country. The healthcare system in the country was unable to meet the sudden increase in demands for medical attention. The consequent toll of death and misery, and economic fallout brought about by the pandemic led to an increase in emotion against colonial rule.[4][7]


  1. ^ "Deja flu: Spanish Lady killed 14 million in British India a century ago". Times of India. 8 March 2020. Retrieved 8 April 2020.
  2. ^ a b "Coronavirus: What India can learn from the deadly 1918 flu". BBC. 18 March 2020. Retrieved 10 April 2020.
  3. ^ Mayor, S. (2000). "Flu experts warn of need for pandemic plans". British Medical Journal. 321 (7265): 852. doi:10.1136/bmj.321.7265.852. PMC 1118673. PMID 11021855.
  4. ^ a b c "How the Spanish flu changed the course of Indian history". Gulf News. 15 March 2015. Retrieved 8 April 2020.
  5. ^ David Arnold, "Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918–19 Influenza Epidemic in India," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 29 (2019): 181-200
  6. ^ Chandra S, Kuljanin G, Wray J (August 2012). "Mortality from the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919: the case of India". Demography. 49 (3): 857–65. doi:10.1007/s13524-012-0116-x. PMID 22661303.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  7. ^ a b c d e "An unwanted shipment: The Indian experience of the 1918 Spanish flu". Economic Times. 3 April 2020. Retrieved 8 April 2020.
  8. ^ a b c Chandra S, Kassens-Noor E (2014). "The evolution of pandemic influenza: evidence from India, 1918–19". BMC Infectious Diseases. 14 (510).
  9. ^ a b "Pandemics of the Past". India Today. 18 March 2020. Retrieved 8 April 2020.
  10. ^ a b c d e Mills, I D (1986). "The 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic— The Indian Experience". The Indian Economic & Social History Review. 23 (1). doi:10.1177/001946468602300102.