Coronavirus And The ‘Killing Fields’ Of India

Saurabh Mishra | 19 May 2021

COVID-19 / India / Medicine

Vasai, Maharashtra, India – May 04, 2021: “Municipal workers wearing Personal Protective Equipment kits (PPE) cremate a Covid-19 victim at a crematorium.” Source: DepositFiles

The pandemic has led to people digging up old, and somewhat forgotten, historical works that could shed some light on our current situation. To cite one example, a recent edition of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine carries essays that engage with Charles Rosenberg’s article on the AIDS epidemic (originally published in 1989) – examining it to see if it has any useful insights for us today.[1] A number of historians from across the world, writing for this special issue, have used it as springboard to explore the pandemic in their own regions. 

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of this article, which presents a simplified three-stage ‘dramaturgical model’ that could, potentially, be applied universally. Boiled down to its basics, the model sees ‘progressive revelation’ as the first act when, following an initial period of denial, states and citizens begin to accept the threat posed by an epidemic. The second act is that of ‘managing randomness,’ when an attempt is made to comprehend – in religious, secular, affective, or other ways – the disorder that pervades all aspects of life. And the third and final act is that of ‘negotiating public response,’ when public health measures begin to be implemented. 

Some aspects of this model do seem to have universal applicability. For instance, the first phase has been witnessed in several parts of the world, including the UK, and has a particularly long life in those countries where the pandemic has become entangled with ongoing political debates. It also appears to last longer in developing countries, where the threat posed by the pandemic is only one amongst a series of threats posed by recurring epidemics.

In the issue of the Bulletin cited above, Kavita Sivaramakrishnan notes that it is not very useful to see the pandemic in India (and other developing countries) as a finite event that has a clear beginning, middle, and end; we must, instead, see it in continuum with other disease-outbreaks and health-risks.[2] This is valid criticism indeed, and, besides explaining the slower process of recognition in developing countries, also highlights the fact that a complete denial is an easy escape route for countries facing a lack of resources. In India, which spends less than one percent of its GDP on health, and therefore lacks a ‘horizontal’ health infrastructure even in normal times, the task of dealing with a pandemic of this scale seems like an impossible one.[3]

Apart from Sivaramakrishnan’s critique of Rosenberg’s idea of a ‘finite epidemic,’ his model is unsuitable for India due to political reasons as well. Since he bases his conclusions on the US and democratic countries in western Europe, Rosenberg fails to pay sufficient attention to countries experiencing authoritarian rule of one kind or another. In India, which is currently going through a phase of majoritarian democracy, the ruling political party – secure in the belief that its politics of Hindutva will carry it through electoral challenges [4] – continues to deny the fact that the health infrastructure has collapsed like a house of cards during the current pandemic.

In mid-May, for example, the Health Minister categorically denied that there was a scarcity of basic amenities such as oxygen supply in Delhi’s hospitals. In another example, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – a self-styled Yogi of the rather violent kind – has been pushing the police force to come down heavily on anyone who makes news of such scarcities public.[5] Even as scores of dead bodies are dumped into the Ganges, and crematoriums across the country struggle to keep up with the ‘demand,’ it seems that the government is only interested in denying threats or deflecting blame.

As all this unfolds in India, it feels that Rosenberg’s final stage of ‘negotiating public response’ has been left to the twin remedies of vaccination and herd immunity. However, vaccination has been very slow as India has been exporting vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech to richer countries – partly to fulfil Mr Modi’s desire to build his image as a ‘global leader’. As hundreds of millions in India struggle to survive in excruciating circumstances, it seems that, once again, the world’s poorest are subsidising (or facilitating) health care for the world’s richest.

Finally, though COVID-19 does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, its social and economic impacts have been felt differentially. Just a few months ago, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed in India without much planning, we saw terrible images of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres to get back to their homes. Similar images can be seen during the present crisis as well. The middle-class, and the state, choose to see this as another sign of the irrationality of the poorest sections. ‘Why can’t they simply stay where they are?’ ask incredulous members of the affluent middle class, inadvertently echoing colonial officers’ view of the ‘irrational poor’.

What such stereotypes fail to take into account is that, abandoned by the state and their employers, the only place where migrants feel a sense of security is back ‘home’. The long walk back to their homes is, therefore, a resounding statement of their lack of trust in the government. One needs to wait and see how this lack of trust might alter the political landscape in the years to come. 

Dr Saurabh Mishra is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, Sheffield. He is the author of the monograph Beastly Encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, Livestock and Veterinary Health in Colonial India, 1790-1920 (Manchester University Press, 2015).

[1] Charles E. Rosengerg, ‘What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective,’ Daedalus, vol. 118, no. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 1-17. The volume of the Bulletin that I am referring to is volume 94, Number 4 (Winter 2020),

Special Issue: Reimagining Epidemics.

[2] Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, ‘Looking Sideways: Locating Epidemics and Erasures in South Asia,’ Bulletin of the History of Medicine; vol. 94, no. 4 (Winter 2020), pp. 637-657.

[3] Sunil Amrith makes the point that post-colonial health infrastructure, just like its colonial predecessor, emphasises ‘vertical’ or episodic engagement during periods of crisis, while ignoring (to some extent) the task of creating a horizontal health infrastructure: ‘Health in India Since Independence,’ BWPI Working Paper 79 (February 2009). Available at: Microsoft Word – Amrith-templated-final version-author corrections.doc ( [accessed 15 May 2021].

[4] Hindutva ideologues define it as the ‘the Hindu way of life’.

[5] Omar Rashid, ‘Oxygen shortage | Seize property of those spreading rumours: Yogi Adityanath,’ The Hindu, 25 April 2021.