Covid-19 · Culture & Life · History India South Asia · History of Medicine · Public health · Religion

Covid-19 in India – Religion and epidemics in Indian history

In April I wrote a piece for The Wire, titled ‘India’s Tumultuous History of Epidemics, Religion and Public Health Policy.’ Find the full article here.

India's Tumultuous History of Epidemics, Religion and Public Health Policy
A doctor injecting serum in a plague patient, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Karachi, India. Photo: Wellcome Collection gallery/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0 [from The Wire article]

Some excerpts below:

In a racialised phrasing similar to the ‘Chinese virus’, cholera in the 1800s was called, in Europe and America, either ‘Asiatic cholera’ or ‘Indian cholera’. The early officially noticed epidemics started in eastern India, and along with that also began the convenient scapegoating of Indians for any cholera trouble in the West. While the Gangetic towns in Bengal were blamed for the origins of the disease, religious gatherings in other parts (Haridwar, Puri, Pandharpur) and in western Asia (Mecca) were blamed for its eventual spread into the West.

When people wrote about the ‘Oriental’ links to cholera, the language employed was not very different from what TV anchors and WhatsApp propagandists in India use today when they want to indict specific people or communities. Here is an American medical professional writing in 1892:

It is beyond human possibility to put India in good sanitary condition in any reasonable time, and to make the pilgrims observe the commonest rules of hygiene and cleanliness would require two soldiers for each pilgrim. The most riotous imagination could scarcely exaggerate the filth of India and Egypt and of the Hindoo and Mohammedan pilgrims… So long as the pilgrimages continue, Europe and this country will be endangered.

The obsession here to denounce Indians as a danger to the ‘civilised’ West seems to match the obsession of the government and some journalists today to frame the Nizamuddin event as the main driver of COVID-19 in the whole country.

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