Covid-19 · History India South Asia · History of Medicine · Medicine & Doctors · Public health

Covid-19 in India: a short history of the Epidemic Diseases Act

In late March I wrote a piece for The Wire on the century-old Epidemic Diseases Act. The full link is here. Below are some excerpts from that article, and also a link to one original primary source from the late 1890s: the proceedings of the Council of the Governor-General at Calcutta.

Many states in India have been invoking an old legal instrument in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, a two-page law that has remained largely unchanged for its 123 years of existence. That is, we are controlling a 2020 pandemic using a law that was developed when people hadn’t yet begun using radio-sets and vitamin supplements didn’t exist. Experts have argued that the law continues unchanged because it is more or less adequate for its purpose. In any case we have to make do with it for now, at least for the duration of the pandemic. In such a scenario it might be helpful to know a bit more about the origins and history of this legislation.

The 1896 bubonic plague epidemic of Bombay (now Mumbai), which began in September that year and gradually spread to most parts of the subcontinent, is a well-known major event from colonial India. As has been the case with epidemics, panic and scapegoating formed a major part of the societal response, and extreme measures dominated the administrative response. On January 19, 1897, about four months after the plague was identified in Bombay, Queen Victoria delivered a speech to both houses of the British Parliament, and in which she said she had “directed [her] Government to take the most stringent measures at their disposal for the eradication of the pestilence.” The Epidemic Diseases Act is the avatar these stringent measures eventually took.

The Act was passed in Feb 1897 at the Council of the Governor-General of India in Calcutta. You’ll find the full text of these debates on the HathiTrust website.

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