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Bombay’s Bitter Plague History

Written by Prakriti Panwar, a grade 11 student.

During the reign of British supremacy in India, Mumbai, then known as Bombay, was badly hit by a plague…

By I Kid You Not , in Current Stories History , at June 9, 2020 Tags: , , , , , , ,

Written by Prakriti Panwar, a grade 11 student.

During the reign of British supremacy in India, Mumbai, then known as Bombay, was badly hit by a plague. Known as the Bubonic or the Bombay Plague, the disease took the lives of thousands of people and lasted from 1896-1897. Though it is hard to imagine that this city was once at its lowest, even in terms of its population, it is one of the major turning points in Mumbai’s history.

 Though its origin is still not confirmed, it is believed that the plague emerged from somewhere near the Hong Kong – China region, almost a century before the Bubonic plague spread in Bombay. However, it could not be prevented from circulating, because the ruling Chinese dynasty at that time believed that it would go against the teachings of Confucius to separate people from their families.

In Bombay, the unhealthy state and living conditions were allegedly and logically, the reason for the spread of the plague. The poor were even wrongly accused of being the carriers for the same. Dr. Viegas, a medical practitioner from Goa, later proved that the carriers were rats and not the poor. Though the cause was known, there was no cure. The population of Bombay dropped steeply and strict measures were taken by the colonial government.

The government created an Epidemics Diseases Act, to handle the situation. It allowed the government to use all sorts of methods to prevent the spread of the disease. The same act has also been put to use, 124 years later, to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. To the British, who had earlier dealt with ‘black death’, a deadly pandemic prevalent in the 14th century, the method of ‘segregation’ and ‘separation’ seemed viable. However, these methods received severe criticism from citizens as they were considered socially and culturally unacceptable. People were unhappy with the way they were treated and also had certain beliefs and superstitions. Some agitated mill workers even protested in front of the Arthur Road Hospital and issued threats to demolish it.

Medically, one thing particularly challenging to the doctors was that the plague was often mistaken for typhoid or malaria, which had similar symptoms. One of the symptoms also included the swelling up of glands, which was already an indication of another disease present in Bombay at that time. What worsened the situation was that the government failed to take the disease seriously and on the other hand, economic situations worsened as migrants left the state. In such times, Savitri Phule, an Indian Educationist, urged her son Yashwantrao to set up a clinic that treated all, regardless of their caste. This helped many people recover.

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, a Russian scientist, was then finally called by the Governor of Bombay to find a cure. He was widely known for previously finding the vaccine for Cholera. A building in JJ Hospital was converted into a research center/pharmacology where the breakthrough finally took place. Haffkine injected himself with the help of his Parsi assistant in the famous Room No. 000, once he found the cure.

This shockingly similar incident proves that history indeed repeats itself. Not in terms of policies such as the 124- year-old act, but also the plight of doctors and citizens. For now, we can just hope that there exists another Savitri Phule, Dr. Viegas or Haffkine among us.

Written by Prakriti Panwar, a grade 11 student.

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