From Cholera to Covid-19
One of the world’s leading historians of colonial medicine recounts how mass outbreaks of disease have shaped the Indian subcontinent over several hundred years.
Covid-19 has given renewed, urgent attention to ‘the pandemic’ as a devastating, recurrent global phenomenon. Today the term is freely and widely used—but in reality, it has a long and contested history, centred on South Asia.
Pandemic India is an innovative enquiry into the emergence of the idea and changing meaning of pandemics, exploring the pivotal role played by—or assigned to—India over the past 200 years. Using the perspectives of the social historian and the historian of medicine, and a wide range of sources, it explains how and why past pandemics were so closely identified with South Asia; the factors behind outbreaks’ exceptional destructiveness in India; responses from society and the state, both during and since the colonial era; and how such collective catastrophes have changed lives and been remembered. Giving a ‘long history’ to India’s current pandemic, the book offers comparisons with earlier epidemics of cholera, plague and influenza.
David Arnold assesses the distinctive characteristics and legacies of each episode, tracking the evolution of public health strategies and containment measures. This is a historian’s reflection on time as seen through the pandemic prism, and on the ways the past is used—or misused—to serve the present.
David Arnold is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Warwick, and former professor of South Asian History at SOAS. His books on medicine and the environment in British and postcolonial India include Colonizing the Body; Toxic Histories; and Burning the Dead: Hindu Nationhood and the Global Construction of Indian Tradition.