corona featured imageA Forgotten Episode of Human History

Public memory is proverbially short. Almost none of my friends know much about the Spanish Flu, which ravaged mankind a hundred years ago. The few, who had heard about it, thought that it was confined to Europe. I first learnt about it when I was studying the demographics of India for some other subject. Given below is a table of the population of   India (undivided, until 1941 and Bharat, after that)) during the last century. You will not fail to observe that in 1921, the population was less than what it was in 1911. During the rest of the century, the decadal growth was, persistently on the incline. The main cause for this decline was a pandemic which is known as “Spanish Flu 1918-20”

pupoulationSource: Census of India

The Spanish Flu

At the time when this epidemic struck the world, the First World War was at its peak. We Indians were fighting on two fronts: assisting our British masters in Europe, and fighting for our freedom back home. With events like the Jalianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, the flu was not talked about, even though millions of Indians were afflicted by this disease and a very large number of people died. Newspapers were the only source of information, and the press was controlled by the British rulers.

Fatalities Caused by the Spanish Flu

The Spanish flu (also known as the 1918 flu pandemic) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Lasting from January 1918 to December 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

To maintain morale, World War I censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit. This gave rise to the name Spanish flu. Historical and epidemiological data are inadequate to identify with certainty the pandemic’s geographic origin, with varying views as to its location. The fatalities of different countries are shown in the graph below.

death rate Great Influenza Pandemic

A Salient Feature of the Spanish Flu

A great deal of research has been done on the onset and progress of this highly infectious illness. It struck in three waves over a period of well over two years. The time line and gravity are shown in the graph given below:

pandemic timelines

Most epidemics strike the children and the elders more than young persons. But this one killed more men in their youth. This could be due to the fact that during the epidemic younger men had been conscripted during the war. This is evident from the following graph:


Spain was NOT the Epicentre of this Flu

Contrary to the popular belief the pandemic of 1918 – 20 did not originate in Spain.  It is now generally agreed that the disease which was later identified as the H1N1 virus began in the trenches of World War I. The soldiers carried it to their countries. Media in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and elsewhere played down the impact on their own country in a bid to keep up morale. Newspapers were either directly controlled by national governments or keen to self-censor in the interest of patriotism at a time of war. However, Spain remained neutral during the conflict and its papers freely reported the outbreak. They all happily reported on events in Spain – leading many to incorrectly presume that the Iberian Peninsula was the epicenter.

Life during the Flu, in pictures

Some pictures that tell the tale of the period are given below:

spit spreads death

This is a picture of a sign on a bus in the USA

masks must

Masks were made compulsory. Please note that in India, Jains have been wearing them since times immemorial

spanish flu mass grave

The victims were buried in ‘Mass Graves’ with no funeral.

influenza deaths in US cities

End of the Spanish Flu

I spent a great deal of time trying to research how the Spanish flu was finally overpowered by our ancestors. There is no clear answer in the published literature. It appears that epidemics of this category end due to one or a combination of the following reasons:

  • People develop immunity to the virus, and they learn how to deal with the ailment.

  • Public health department develops techniques to fight with the virus.

  • The doctors discover new medicines or forms of treatment to cure the victims

  • The vulnerable members of the society die and the virus goes with them

The Corona Pandemic

A great deal has been said and written on the current Corona pandemic. Efforts have also been made to predict the number of people likely to be afflicted with this new virus. It is widely acknowledged that medical science has not yet discovered a vaccine or effective medicine to cure this dreaded international epidemic. As far as I can see it is early yet to make any credible forecast. However, it is clear that the magnitude of the current natural calamity is frightening. A study of the Spanish flu seems to suggest that even if we are unable to contain the spread of the COVID 19 virus there is a finite possibility that it may recur in the form of subsequent waves. During the 100 years science and technology have made giant strides and there is no doubt that a solution will emerge. Life will go on and mankind will bounce back with greater and renewed aplomb.

As on the 15th Aprils, the graphs indicate that the curves have ‘flattened’ a bit. However, it is early yet to declare that the worst is behind us.

italy spain death rate

Life after Corona

There is ample evidence to suggest that the world will not be the same when the war against the present pandemic ends. At no time in the recorded history of mankind has a lockdown of the present kind been imposed. Life has virtually come to a standstill almost as if someone has pulled the plug. And for the first time, the developed countries in Europe and America are affected more than the economically backward nations. Even if we are able to check the spread of this disease it is unlikely that international travel will resume and people will begin globetrotting as before. Millions of people will have to alter their style of life. I do not know how many people will venture to go on a cruise after the experience of the famous Diamond Princess Cruise ship.

Power has a Shelf life!

A famous author observed that power and influence have a shelf life. The British Empire ruled over most of the Earth and then the Americans made us to believe that there is no world beyond the USA. Economists judge countries by their GDP which is based on the quantum of aircraft, cars, and other industrial products owned by the citizens. The so-called developed countries consume enormous quantities of fuel and they have invested fabulous amounts of money to acquire lethal weapons and equipment to subdue weaker nations. The coronavirus has demonstrated a prowess to teach a lesson to those who need it the most.

One thing is certain. You can be living in the best house, own a top of the line limousine, fly in private jets…but if COVID 19 decides to attack you, you cannot escape. It can also face the most powerful atom bomb created by man.

They say, “With money, you can purchase medicines; but you cant buy health

The Road Ahead

I am neither a doctor nor an astrologer. But I have the gumption to make a few predictions:

  • It is early yet to predict how many people will suffer illness or death as a result of the current pandemic. But I am sanguine that the figures will not be as scary as the Spanish Flu.

  • Health care will receive more funds. Nations may decide to cut down on their defence budgets.

  • Europe and the North America are likely to end up with a larger number of fatalities.

  • A second, or even a third wave, cannot be ruled out.

  • In a few months’ time, people will get used to this pandemic. Since an overwhelming majority of patients survive this disease, the scare will diminish. And no stigma will be attached to people who are tested positive in the ‘Corona test’

  • People will avoid crowded places. Travel will be restricted. Many people will work from home. Many educational institutions will switch to ‘online’ classes. Many more items of daily needs will be purchased ‘online’.

  • Travel and tourism will reduce. The cruise industry may face extinction. And those who are engaged in ‘the oldest profession may have to look for an alternative occupation!

  • They say, “To fight darkness do not draw your sword, light a candle”. And we say, “To defeat corona virus, do not quarrel with the rules and lead kindly light”

Tailpiece : Are we victims of a ‘Biological War’ ???



  1. Lt Gen Jagdish Chander says:

    HI Sir,
    What a lovely way to spend time- for the benefit of unpadh guys like us.Thank you Sir.
    You’ve apparently done a lot of research to arrive at your conclusions.
    Love your style of writing.
    How are you doing . I had signed out of this account for over 6/7 years. Somehow discovered this account’s password today. look forward to more interaction now.
    Uma is well so are both the boys and their families.
    with very warm regards to Mrs Surjit too.

  2. Lt Gen Jagdish Chander says:

    jagdish chander
    3:25 PM (1 hour ago)
    to me

    HI Sir,
    What a lovely way to spend time- for the benefit of unpadh guys like us.Thank you Sir.
    You’ve apparently done a lot of research to arrive at your conclusions.
    Love your style of writing.
    How are you doing . I had signed out of this account for over 6/7 years. Somehow discovered this account’s password today. look forward to more interaction now.
    Uma is well so are both the boys and their families.
    with very warm regards to Mrs Surjit too.

    • Maj Gen Surjit Singh says:

      After retiring, I tried bridge. I tried golf. Did not feel satisfied.
      My father used to write. I followed in his footsteps.
      Mails like your message give me the impetus to read…and write.
      I can never forget the affection which I have received from you and Uma; in Gangtok as well as B’luru
      Stay safe, and God bless.

  3. Surendra Rishi says:

    Dear Surjit,
    A well researched and articulated piece. The
    Parallel drawn between the two pandemics
    is valid. Hopefully, with all the precautions
    being taken in India we should be able to avoid
    the havoc caused by Corona elsewhere

    S R

  4. Air Cmdre Krishna Kannan says:

    9:54 AM (1 hour ago)
    to J, me

    Dear JT Sir,
    Thank you for circulating Gen Surjit’s write-up. The comparison drawn with the Spanish Flu is apt. The article which is a balanced piece of writing is timely, highly informative and really helpful in understanding the Coronavius Pandemic.
    Through you, I wish to convey my sincere thanks and appreciation to Gen Surjit!
    Kind regards,
    Air Cmde M V Kannan (Retd)

  5. Col SK Kohli says:

    colls Kohli
    Fri, Apr 24, 7:38 PM (16 hours ago)
    to me, nana

    Kya mein khwabh dekh raha hoon
    iss GUFTA GU

    I recall the days passed since yesterday
    almost over six decades away

    Surjit Dear brother
    in my memory you shall
    for ever stay
    even when I pass away

    Will you remember me
    all my friends
    only a simple man
    I am
    Fare thee well
    Corona is playing hell

    but they say we all will do well

    NDA’s Blessings
    Time alone can tell

    24 Apr 2020
    9818574698 sms only

  6. VJ Lawrence says:

    LAwrence Vakayil Jacob
    Fri, Apr 24, 11:18 PM (12 hours ago)
    to me

    Dear Surjit Sir
    Superbly written.Very informative. Lot of parallels can be drawn between the two.

    Thanks for sharing


  7. Col Guljit Chadha says:

    Guljit singh Chadha
    11:08 AM (2 hours ago)
    to me

    Dear General
    A remarkable analysis articulated beautifully.
    Thanks for sharing, Sir !
    I have now relocated to Noida andI have joined Bennett University Greater Noida as Registrar.
    Trust you, Ma’am and all your loved ones are doing well in this testing time !
    Warm regards

  8. Brig Surinder Singh says:

    Great insight into the historic event.

    However history may or may not repeat itself. In the Indian scenario, the dice is loaded in our favour. We have the experience of others behind us and were better prepared to tackle it.

    Trends indicate that the virus is losing its sting and like the eternal optimist said

    “ Garmee ayeegee to mar jayega,saala virus!”

  9. Brig Anil Adlakha says:

    Anil Sunita
    Apr 20, 2020, 11:02 PM (15 hours ago)
    to me

    Very interesting!

  10. Jasdev Singh says:

    Jasdev Singh
    12:08 PM (2 hours ago)
    to me

    further to your research , Papa .

    incase , you have not chanced upon this article .

    6.7 Lacs was the total population of and 9 % 63071 people were killed in the entire Gurgaon district . Not sure if this data is correct, but it seems this area was badly impacted by the Spanish Flu.



  11. Col Jagtar Singh says:

    Jagtar Singh
    Apr 20, 2020, 9:08 AM (1 day ago)
    to me

    Sir. a very educative article not only on carona but also on population growth rate in India. I for one had never heard of the
    Spanish virus. Though I am a very small entity in stature in front of you, but still I must congratulate you for the amount
    of time & research put in by you. Regards Jagtar Singh

  12. Sriram Jayasimha says:

    Sriram Jayasimha
    Apr 19, 2020, 2:37 PM (2 days ago)
    to me

    Dear General,

    In hindsight, it has the same mortality as the flu! See:

    …except there’s no vaccine. We have to control the co-morbidities! Obesity, diabetes, blood-pressure, the bane of Indian society, are under our individual control. Apart from being able to control our politicians’ stupidity.


    • J Thomas says:

      Sriram, it is good to be optimistic. However, somewhere between optimism and pessimism is realism.

      A lot of people in US declared that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu. One friend of mine wanted to bet that total deaths in US would be under 10,000. Within a week, the deaths exceeded that figure. Then he wanted to bet that the deaths would not exceed 50,000. Even that figure was exceeded within 2 or 3 weeks. Today Covid-19 is the cause of the highest number of deaths in US.

      Up to date world statistics on Covid-19 are available at the John Hopkins site

      The same statistics but with more detail and more graphs are available at

      Unfortunately, the mortality rate is much higher than the flu. And a major problem is that even asymptomatic persons do infect others.

  13. Zal Kabraji says:

    My dear General,

    Thanks for this very informative documentation—all I can say is, the future is going to be quite un-certain & specially in India where we seem to forget things quite easily & still have the ‘ chalta hai’ attitude & also brag to defy the worst !

    On a different note—your tailpiece also needs very serious pondering—–one single human being carrying such viruses could be dam side more effective than a Bofor’s gun !

    Warm regards,


  14. Sanjay Varma says:


    Well thought out and logical. Yes, this will become like the Flu and become annual reoccurrence. There will be a vaccine for it, and all elderly people will be advised to take it every winter, especially in the colder countries.

    Our lives will make a 180 degree turn and we will look more inwards and outwards. A lot of unnecessary travel will stop and lives will become simpler.

    Read in another post that almost all Coronavirus type illnesses ( including the Spanish Flu) originate from China. According this article, Chinese labour was brought in to dig trenches or graves or something like that. Do not remember exactly. In all probability they brough the illness with them.

    The second thing that I found intriguing was the census. There was the normal population growth between 1941 and 1951 despite the fact that India was divided and a huge amount of people would have become citizens of Pakistan.

    Is this a mistake??

    Best Regards,

    Sanjaya Varma

    A 23 West End,

    New Delhi 110021


  15. Col RS Grewal says:

    Ranjit Grewal
    Apr 18, 2020, 10:39 AM (3 days ago)
    to me

    Very interesting reading does give all a ray of hope. Thanks

    Ranjit Grewal

  16. Col Ram Sharma says:

    Colonel Ram Sharma
    Apr 18, 2020, 8:12 AM (3 days ago)

    Thanks for a lucid explanation Surjit . It is definitely a great reminder of our diminutive size in fromt of the Nature .

  17. Zal Kabraji says:

    zal kabraji
    Apr 18, 2020, 6:53 AM (3 days ago)
    to me

    My dear General,
    Thanks for this very informative documentation—all I can say is, the future is going to be quite un-certain & specially in India where we seem to forget things quite easily & still have the ‘ chalta hai’ attitude & also brag to defy the worst !
    On a different note—your tailpiece also needs very serious pondering—–one single human being carrying such viruses could be dam side more effective than a Bofor’s gun !
    Warm regards,

  18. Col Randhir Singh says:

    randhir singh
    Apr 17, 2020, 6:46 PM (4 days ago)
    to me

    V well analysed educative thanks for sharing

  19. Col Wazir Bedi says:

    Very good research and analysis
    Age 77.5

  20. Maj Gen Suresh Hiremath says:

    Dear Surjit,
    Very well analysed and presented. Indeed an eye opener. Frankly I was not aware of Spanish Flu. Thank you for educating me.
    Trust you and your family are hale and hearty.
    Best wishes and deep rgds.

  21. Col ABS Sidhu says:

    Hi Surjit ,
    Thanks for sharing well researched paper .
    I feel it is too premature to predict the course
    of this virus .
    With the availability of better med facilities
    and research going on , doctors may able to
    control it .
    It is going to be a long battle and we have to prepare
    our selves for future waves .
    GOD helps those who help themselves .
    With warm regard and best wishes .

    ABS Sidhu

  22. Maj Gen V Krishna says:

    Vijay Krishna

    Brilliant ! Tks

  23. Jairam Ramesh MP says:

    Many thanks Maj Gen. I look forward to reading this very soon. The best book on the Spanish Flu is by Laura Spinney. Recent estimates put mortality in the Indian sub-continent at over 15 million.

    Incidentally, you may be interested in my recent biography of Krishna Menon (cover image attached).

    Stay safe and best wishes.

  24. going back to a century & recalling the pandemic of that era when the world population was not so alarming as compared to the present situation. The gap between the aristocracy & the commoner was much less & the needs too were limited. Today we are living in a different environment, the gap has increased many fold amongst have & have not, living conditions are far from satisfactory in spite of progress in all the fields you name.
    How, why & where this Virus has emanated is no more relevant, what is the need of the hour is that the citizens of the world understand their individual & collective responsibility to face this invisible enemy & learn to fight it without any reservations. The fear needs to be understood & if each one plays its social role the day is not far that this battle will be won. The entire worlds demography will be overhauled, living style, working methods, Industrial Scenario, the respect & equation amongst the countries – developed, under developed, advanced & powerful will have very little impact, the tourism industry will have to reinvent itself & people will have to take a call to explore their own country first & then venture for the others, it is going to take a long to evade the fear of the unknown.
    Presently let us pray that the confidence is restored & the universe gets back to its normal functioning & the worlds peace is restored. Let us learn to live with due care & HOPE.

  25. PT Gangadharan says:

    Dear Sir,

    1.A good research paper with supporting statistics.
    2.Life style is likely to undergo a major change as people are likely to live with what they have.Family bond is likely to increase and concept of nuclear family to joint family may get a boost.
    3. Digitisation and dependence on internet are likely to get a major boost.
    4.People are likely to be God fearing and Human Gods are likely to be discarded over a period of time.

  26. Jasdev says:

    Your predictions are spot on , Dad .

    maybe we will also introspect , and start realizing the inner journey or travel is far more satisfactory and safe Vs this romanticized version of constant need and longing for- “new experiences “, that the modern travel and commercial world had us hooked to.
    Secondly, the world order will change, and clearly it will spring up many new opportunities for some who are willing to adapt early to the new ways of working – people less – call it online or with greater efficiency.

    loved the article especially as it throws up the reason why it was so big in India and most of us think this happened only in Europe and US .

    A free modern press is overdoing it now , which was completely missing then .

  27. lalit says:

    Excellent analogies drawn and the graphics to support the views.
    There are two thoughts. Maybe the impact is larger than what is dramatized over media since so many cases not reported due to background illiteracy .The other one is since such a large population is BPL that they have hardened body mechanisms, and can withstand this virus along with other contaminations that the body is conditioned to. Maybe the proverbial thick skins, are a blessing in disguise.

  28. Maj Gen Inderjit Kashyap says:

    By the evidence so far before all nations, the search for the reason & the cure is still on & likely to be so for the coming few yrs. The conspiracy theory is being tossed around like a shuttle with no clear winner & this is likely to be a match of long rallies.The head count of those affected & fatalities will continue for atleast a yr or so more & even the “mighty” countries will be scratching heads to find answers to the health & economic tsunami that has struck each one. Even the developing nations are in the same mould. The pandemic is yet to strike the African continent & its effects on that continent & as a result thereof on the rest of the world are yet to be appreciated or realised. Therefore, the world is not yet at the half way stage even wrt the effect on it by the pandemic.
    Am hoping that the world realises that the effect of the lockdowns all over have had a positive effect on the environment which countries including China were battling earlier. Global warming has been a bone of contention between USA & the others & the current positivity should be a lesson for all. The impetus, so badly needed, should come post Covid 19 & hopefully, we the super citizens may see the twilight yrs with cleaner air & water. The chances of it happening are remote though going by the adage that “Humans have a short Memory”.
    For all we known humans may strike back at nature with a vengeance blaming it the for the pandemic whereas going by the evidence it’s going to the 1st man made pandemic, second, if The Atom Bomb attach on Japan is taken as the 1st.
    Good luck for all of us in the coming yrs.

    • colls says:

      “Humans have a short Memory”.

      VERY APT educative lesson Sir

      But human memory is not short
      I know when I was born
      WW2 was on and you also must be elder to me
      still remember two FAT BOYS
      You may modify your stance

      Bring out a paper on INDIAN DEFENCE
      How we can Reduce and Share Civil Planes
      see so many lying off road Sir
      My salutes
      Small guy me

      colls 15 NDA

  29. Dave sood says:

    Most current topic. COVID 19.
    Time has come to reset the button as on your computers.
    We all will have to start afresh with less money, more poor people and no money in the coffers of present Government.
    If we can go back and findout which year was our GDP was 1.5 ; then we can start at that levels of salaries and standard of living.
    IMF has predicted that in India 400 million will fall below the poverty line.
    We may also emerge as a better society. Maids and Cooks will become part of one’s family. We will have more respect for sanitation workers, Nurses and Doctors.
    It is a humbling experience. I hope we all will endure the next decade gracefully.

  30. colls says:

    What can a nonintellectual being
    like Colls
    see or say

    You are an expert
    so answer the Qs
    you have put across

    The best one who can
    A great educator of human
    still helping evade
    CORONA O man
    I stay indoors to save my clan

  31. Brig Harikumar says:

    At a personal level,I feel it is the most humbling experience to live in these times, not to relegate the difficulties veterans like us go through. The Spanish Flu was much more bigger, but it was a different world then. No one except thos affected directly, worried about it .
    Yes,the conspiracy theorists allege it was a testing ground for biological war – hypotheses for which existed way back during the cold war period. Hope we will be enlightened more in the days to come.
    Someone wrote in Social media – Positive is the most Negative word in 2020.

  32. J Thomas says:

    The world has changed. Mutated versions of the Spanish flu virus are still with us. Similarly the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 will remain with us for ever.

    “Flattening the curve” reduces the intensity of the peak and buys time for the healthcare system to gear up. So far, we in India have done a good job of buying time.

    But the Covid-19 disease will be with us for a long time. It is sobering to read “A call to honesty in pandemic modeling”

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