Why Covid-19 is not the first, and definitely not the last pandemic to hit humankind

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on November 21, 2020

Out of bounds: Norms of social distancing and quarantine were observed during outbreaks even centuries ago   -  ISTOCK.COM

Historian Vinay Lal shows why Covid-19 is not without precedent

* In his new book, The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus, Lal argues that humankind is used to catastrophes such as Covid-19 or those of even greater proportions

* The first legislation mandating quarantine of ships, for instance, was passed on July 27, 1377, and quarantine was a practice recorded in the Old Testament.

Is the SARS-CoV-2, or the disease it causes — Covid-19 — without a precedent? Perhaps not. Historian Vinay Lal shows us why; he revisits the plagues and epidemics of the distant past, when death hung heavy in the air — like it does now — to expose the imagined singularity and exceptionality of Covid-19. In The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus, Lal bombards his readers with facts to further his argument that the world is facing the most serious public health crisis in generations — but has seen worse. “The 6,35,000 deaths that have been claimed by Covid-19 as of 23 July 2020 are little more than a footnote in the statistical register of preternatural death,” he writes.

The Fury of COVID-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus / Vinay Lal / Pan Macmillan India / Non-fiction / ₹599


Lal, a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), wrote this book in a span of roughly three months covering the pandemic from wide-ranging angles — historical, political, financial, social, medical, and even literary. The book, he admits, has been a greater challenge than any of the 17 others he has authored as it was a race against time. Yet, he writes with exceptional authority and ease. The book reads like a non-fiction thriller as Lal delves deep into history, going back and forth several centuries, to understand how our ancestors dealt with contagions. He sprinkles his argument with interesting trivia; the first legislation mandating quarantine of ships, for instance, was passed on July 27, 1377, and quarantine was a practice recorded in the Old Testament.

He compels the reader to reconsider the use of the word “unprecedented” in conversations around Covid-19. “Each generation’s sufferings are distinct and unique. What was without a precedent was the Holocaust or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki,” he writes.

Lal argues that humankind is used to catastrophes such as Covid-19, or those of even greater proportions: 40 million people were killed in WWI, and at least twice as many in WWII; the Spanish flu or influenza of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed 50-100 million people worldwide; the epidemics of 1957 (Asian flu) and 1968 (Hong Kong flu) — instances virtually erased from history books — killed over a million; and, more recently, AIDS has killed 32 million people in four decades. In India alone, 8-10 million people were killed in famines from 1860-70, and 13-20 million during the Spanish flu.

Lal, however, doesn’t stop at numbers. He examines the social aspects associated with outbreaks — the nomenclature, and the blaming of the “other” that often accompanies it. Spanish flu, he writes, is a misleading name; it was more a price Spain paid for remaining neutral during WWI. He draws attention to how US President Donald Trump on different occasions called Covid-19 the Wuhan virus, China virus, or Kung flu.

It is not uncommon for powerful nations to blame a pandemic on a scapegoat. “When 70 per cent of the worldwide fatalities from AIDS was accounted for by the US, there was present a concerted attempt to stigmatise Africa as the origin of the disease.” Closer home, the Tablighi Jamaat was accused of spreading the virus — the corona jihad, Lal points out.

The non-pharmaceutical protocols followed during the pandemic were in currency during the Spanish flu or even before. Social distancing was practised centuries ago, so too shutting of schools, businesses, and churches. However, there is no precedent to the complete shuttering of economic activity and perhaps, that is an aspect that makes Covid-19 “unprecedented”.

He pushes forward the concept of the unification of the globe by disease, first proposed by French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, and opines that the world will see more such events in the future, often triggered by climate change.

With epidemiologists claiming that we haven’t yet seen the end of epidemic diseases, Lal questions the notion of modernity. If to be modern means an apparent end of epidemics then we are far from it. The case in point is the “humbling of the US” during this pandemic. However, he reminds us that such diseases hardly ever cripple the affluent classes: Blacks are more likely to die than whites.

India’s migrant labour crisis, which saw millions move out of the cities, has had a precedent too. “The history of plague and pestilence in India is, moreover, intertwined with migration. In 1896, the first wave of bubonic plague struck India and lingered for almost 10 years...Bombay was seriously afflicted in September, and by January 1897, 4,00,000 people, nearly half of Bombay’s population, had fled to the countryside.”

The government had set up plague hospitals, but many Hindus and Jains objected to being placed indiscriminately in the wards alongside patients of unknown caste. Not much has changed on the ground since. Social distancing in India still evokes the age-old practice of untouchability, and the quarantine has only reinforced this sense of alienation. Lal speaks up for the Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims in India, African-Americans, native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, and their manufactured quarantining at birth.

Lal is critical of the Indian government’s handling of the pandemic, especially the imposition of the lockdown with a mere four hours’ notice, the subsequent migration, and the unemployment crisis it generated.

The book has its shortcomings though. Despite the pace at which Lal worked, the nature of the pandemic makes the book appear a little dated. He could cover aspects related to the pandemic only till July, but he still gets full marks for taking up this mammoth task and putting Covid-19 in perspective. For telling us that the pandemic is not without a precedent — it is not the first, and surely not the last.

Lamat R Hasan is a Delhi-based independent writer

Published on November 20, 2020

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