Lessons from History: Bangalore and the Bubonic Plague of 1898

Authoritarian responses made things worse. The State found that their interventions were more effective when they worked in cooperation with the people.

plague
Photo Courtesy: Research Matters

At least 20% of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown. In this pandemic like situation it may be helpful to look back at an earlier pandemic, one that happened in Bangalore, Karnataka. The third Bubonic plague transformed the city of Bangalore.

This is that story.

How the Plague arrived

The third Bubonic plague began in the 1850s. It originated in the Chinese Cantons. The British invaded China and forced China to open its ports to trade. The plague then spread to Hong Kong, and then to Bombay. It spread across the world. In the 1890s, every inhabited continent had outbreaks of the plague.

The Bubonic plague was said to have killed 10 million in India in the first wave and eventually killed another 12 million people in sporadic outbursts over the next thirty years.

The Bubonic plague is caused by the bacteria, Yersinia pestis. The infection causes the subject to experience flu-like symptoms, followed by the swelling of the lymph nodes. Half of those who contract the disease and are untreated die within a week of getting the infection.

The disease spreads through fleas, which might inhabit small animals, most commonly rats. Rats might hide within the house, leading to a dispersal of fleas. If the host dies, the fleas spread and bite any person nearby, spreading the disease.

A plague on the train

It spread across India because of the railway lines, which developed massively in the 1880s.

The first cases in modern-day Karnataka were in September 1898. They originated in Bellary and Bangalore. The explosion of the plague caused a panic in Bangalore.

Bangalore was a major trade hub at the time. People coming to Bangalore were required to register with the police and would be required to show up at the police every day for 10 days to check if they were developing any symptoms.

Immediately the state began to quarantine people. This was done in a very cruel manner, where people were taken by the government, and kept away.

Nearly 10,000 people assembled in front of the Governor’s house in protest, but they were dispersed by the colonial military. Cases were reported from the districts near Bangalore soon after. Nearly 500 people died in the first month in Bangalore alone.

Government officials realized that the plague was spreading along the major railway lines, and concluded that human interactions caused the spread. They began to respond by requiring passports to travel by train.

Bangalore was a major trade hub at the time. People coming to Bangalore were required to register with the police and would be required to show up at the police every day for 10 days to check if they were developing any symptoms.

Hiding from “Health-care”

The British had a very heavy-handed approach of dealing with those suspected of carrying the plague. People often hated quarantining and would take measures to avoid registration and would escape if they could. To avoid quarantining, many people hid illnesses and even deaths in their homes. Sometimes dead bodies were hidden in wells and reservoirs. Riots and mass looting began in response to the draconian approaches of the state in managing the plague.

Eventually, authorities changed their approach. They found people responded better when they could be treated at home. The state then adopted a policy of making hospital visits voluntary and home visits proved to be more effective. In practice, patients were told they had to stay in their homes with the surrounding rooms in the house disinfected. They found that this improved the rate of compliance.

When it was suspected that animals were the cause of the spread of the disease as opposed to human-human contact. The British government made a list of animals suspected to spread the disease including monkeys and squirrels.

In hindsight, these policies turned out to be counter-productive, as the fleas carried by the animals would be released when the animals were killed.

The plague continued to spread. Within 6 weeks of the first case, over a thousand people had died. Riots broke out in the city and the military had to suppress them. At its peak, over a hundred people were reported to have died each day.

Trouble in Srirangapatanam prison

Prisoners were vulnerable. The enclosure put them at risk of the plague, and the panic put them at risk of a riot in the prisons. When violence in the prison escalated, staff used lethal force to suppress the prisoners. To maintain order, the State relocated the prisoners to the military fort until vaccinations could be made available.

From the empty city to a new one

After about a hundred days, after the plague hit, rates began to decline, but there was much fear in the city. Shops, courts, and schools were all reported to have been abandoned. From a population of nearly two lakhs, only about 10,000 people remained in the city.

The next year, the plague resurfaced at around the same time of year, leading to another great exodus from the city. Instances of the plague would keep resurfacing annually, though each time was less deadly than the previous year.

The city of Bangalore was forever changed. Before this time, the city had two separate units, the market, and the cantonment. In the years to follow, city extensions were built to extend the territory of the city. These new extensions had wider roads and open drains.

Why a democratic health-care system is so important in a crisis?

Many of the problems experienced in the plague got worse because of three reasons. First, quarantining in healthcare for the poor was seen as a prison sentence. For a health care system to be effective in combating diseases, there has to be a universally accessible, community-based healthcare system that delivers to all sections of society in a transparent and accountable way.

Second, authoritarian responses made things worse. The State found that their interventions were more effective when they worked in cooperation with the people. When they tried to enforce their authority, people responded by hiding and rioting. When their concerns were taken on board as part of the process, things went more smoothly.

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