A little over 100 years ago, Spanish flu killed about 15 million people in India. Mahatma Gandhi too came down with it but it failed to make a political impact in colonial times. Looking back from our current “coronial”, or post Covid-19, sensibilities, this is hard to explain. It is almost as if the Spanish flu crept in at night, killed people door to door, and left before sunrise.
Why is it so different today? The Covid-19 death toll in India has exceeded 16,000, which is every bit tragic, but these numbers are an evaporating droplet in comparison to 15 million fatalities in the Spanish flu. But at that time, a lockdown didn’t even figure as a distant possibility.
The bubonic plague devastated the world for centuries and, at one point, killed a quarter of the population from the Caucasus to Carthage. Yet nobody, in all those years, ever thought of giving the silk route a miss or not setting off on ships with spices and calico.
The same question again: What has changed?
If there is a single prime mover, then that has to be democracy. Democracy has made a difference because its masthead says that all lives matter. Even in theory, such a proclamation has consequences. So, when a pandemic happens, a modern democratic state cannot be seen sitting lazily on its hands, waiting for herd immunity. It must act fast, even if that action later turns out to be ill-advised. Inaction is worse than wrong action!
This is why Western democracies chose lockdown when Covid-19 struck, and India, a democracy too, thought it best to take that path. The fact that every vote has the same weight, creates a different kind of tingle, unthinkable in the past. This explains why the administrative pulse never raced in earlier pandemics. Even the science behind contemporary quarantining developed first in 19th century Britain, the “cradle of democracy”.
An insight into this directional change can be gleaned from how battle field deaths were dealt with in pre-democracies. The Duke of Wellington thought the common soldier was the “scum of the earth”. Frederick the Great believed it was pointless to worry about whether a wounded soldier lived or died. Louis Napoleon did not have a regular treatment unit in his war camps. In fact, the French had a rather poor record on this score till the Third Republic of 1870.
Before democracy came to Europe, casualties of war were way beyond what would be acceptable in any democracy today. In the internecine English Civil Wars from 1642 to 1651, the death toll was almost equal to the numbers of British soldiers who died in World War II. Again, in the American Civil War, approximately ten times more soldiers died (North and South America combined) than in World War I. As democracy advanced in the US, so did the concern for the welfare of soldiers, most of all, in containing mortality in the battle field.
Lives matter in a democracy and America’s ceaseless striving to minimise war casualties is a response to that fundamental drive. Just compare: The American Civil War resulted in 4,98,332 casualties which was more than the deaths in World War I, World War II, Vietnam War (lasted 11 years), Gulf War (still on from 2001) and Iraq War (lasted seven years) put together.
The major reason why Americans were reluctant to enter the World Wars was because they did not want to sacrifice “flowers of youth” in battle. In World War II, American forces suffered 2,91,557 deaths, but Communist Russia lost 8 million soldiers and Japan (not then a democracy) over 2.3 million military casualties. The legendary General George C Marshall said if the US had suffered nearly as much as the Japanese, there would have been a Congressional Inquiry and heads would have rolled.
Post World War I, the US military ramped up its efforts to curb battle field deaths. About 58,000 US combat forces died in Vietnam, which was a sticker shock to Americans. Yet, this was nothing compared to over 1 million Viet Cong soldiers and an equal number of Vietnamese civilians who died in the same war. Yet, neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon could weather the protest that broke out in the US when body bags started coming home.
To a significant extent, the US’s much talked about “military-industrial complex” stems from this caution of not losing lives in battle. As there is constant pressure to minimise “boots on the ground”, American forces are becoming increasingly dependent on drones and long-distance precision targeting. These sophisticated new war machines cause heavy damage to the enemy and, at the same time, cut back on American casualties. In the Iraq war, over 1 million Iraqis died against 4,431 US soldiers.
Seen against this background, it is easier to understand why in democracies today Covid-19 has created such a social churn, even though it is nowhere as lethal as past pandemics. This mindset, first established by democracy, is now a module ready to be exported to non-democracies, particularly those who want to prosper in the global economic chain.
The ideal that all lives matter compels democracies to heightened activity in pandemic times, so why should this “coronial” phase be different? People, well and unwell, need the state to assure them they will not “go gently into that good night”.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.