Death and Disorder: The 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in British India

Maura Elizabeth Chhun, University of Colorado Boulder

Abstract

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic claimed millions of lives around the world, including some 12-14 million in India. The British colonial government found itself facing a previously unimaginable public health crisis while also fighting the First World War and staring down an approaching famine. Without an effective cure for the flu and with only an overstretched and understaffed bureaucracy to fight it, the British government managed only small, largely ineffectual steps to mitigate the flu’s immense death toll. Issues of power, racism, and colonial control intersected with structural deficiencies and a well founded, deep seated distrust of government intervention on the part of the Indian people during the pandemic. In the aftermath many people questioned the government’s response, and the flu began to be used in anticolonialist rhetoric as an indictment of the British presence. However, the atrocities at Amritsar soon overshadowed the neglect of the pandemic. The British government did briefly consider reforms in the Indian Medical Service, but internal bureaucratic wrangling and a lack of recrudescence put an end to those discussions. By the late 1920s, the flu pandemic in British India had faded to a distant memory.