By Prof. Adapa Satyanarayana (Retd)
Presently, the pandemic of Corona is causing havoc to the living conditions of people in India and Telangana. Historically, the widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time has occurred in our country from the time immemorial. India is considered as the home of certain epidemics like Leprosy and Small Pox. Manu Dharmasastra prescribes the expulsion of leprosy patients. An epidemic is the rapid spread of disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time. Efforts to contain the epidemics are undertaken by the governments nationally and locally depending on the specific conditions. The history and experiences of containing the epidemics offer an important lesson to the present-day governments in their fight against COVID 19. In the specific context of Telangana, Charminar, the historic monument was built in remembrance of the great Plague that caused the loss of many human lives. Suriti Appaiah, a soldier in the British Army built the Ujjain Mahankali Temple in Secunderabad, to commemorate the Cholera epidemic which killed thousands of people.
Telangana region under Nizam’s rule witnessed several outbreaks of epidemics like plague, smallpox, malaria, and leprosy during the modern period. The plague epidemic entered into the Hyderabad State towards the end of the 19th century from Maharashtra and the passengers who traveled by train from Wadi to Secunderabad became the earliest victims. The Nizam government quickly responded and plague containment camps were set up. The passengers were detained at the Secunderabad Railway Station and the infected persons were sent to quarantine centers. Several epidemic camps were set up for the medical treatment of affected persons in areas now known as Nampally, Malakpet, Azampura, Punjagutta, Basheerbagh, Irram Manzil, etc. Many temples and dargah lands were converted into refugee camps where thousands of people afflicted by the Plague were accommodated. During these epidemics, families were not allowed to take the bodies to their family graveyards and were buried in the nearest available one.
The government also banned the transport of dead bodies to limit the spread of the disease. However, the first two decades of the 20th century gave the biggest blow to the city of Hyderabad due to the repeated spread of contagious diseases like plague, malaria, small-pox, measles, cholera (gattara), influenza/Spanish Flu, etc. when thousands of people died. It was estimated that more than 10 lakh (one million) persons were killed by the epidemics in the Nizam’s Dominions between 1900 and 1920. Of these, about 3,50,000 people died of influenza in 1918-19. These epidemics, especially Influenza and Plague led to a decrease of 3 to 5 percent population of the Hyderabad State.
Hyderabad city was affected by the large-scale flooding of the Musi River in 1908 and a deadly plague in 1911 in Nampally area (a nursery of plague and disease). Subsequently, the Nizam government decided to improve the medical, sanitation and hygiene of the city to cope with the spread of epidemics. During the epidemics, the government inoculated thousands of people to control the disease and incurred an expenditure of Rs.5,00,000 in 1910-11. To contain the influenza epidemic in 1918, the Medical department supplied 18 lakh doses of various drugs to all the hospitals and dispensaries in the Nizam Dominions. Further, along with free medicine, 66,000 pounds food consisting of ganji, milk etc. was provided to the poor patients. Similarly, when there was an exceedingly severe outbreak of Plague and Malaria, 63,831 persons were vaccinated with an expenditure of Rs.1,62,939.
The Plague Department chalked out campaign programmes as the preventive and precautionary measures such as trapping, baiting, fumigation of rats and disinfections to check the spread of the epidemic. Propaganda work was also carried out by the department in educating the public to realize the manifold advantages derived by their co-operation with the officials in carrying out anti-plague measures. To achieve this objective, pamphlets and posters in English, Urdu, and Telugu languages were freely distributed explaining how infection spread from place to place by human agency.
The plague propaganda films, “Plague the Destroyer” were shown along with lectures illustrated by magic lantern was delivered on the advantages of anti-plague measures and hundreds of people flocked to witness them. In order to spread anti-plague measures among the villagers, the government arranged a six-wheeler cinema motor vehicle equipped with the latest projector. In the Plague Office a special demonstration room was arranged, where pictures and charts illustrating the etiology and epidemiology of plague and anti-plague measures were shown to the visitors. Besides propaganda work, the plague department set up temporary camps and huts where more than 15,000 people were accommodated and more than two lakh persons were inoculated. In order to prevent the spread of epidemics in 1915, the Nizam government established a new hospital for quarantining the patients at Nallakunta, presently known as the Koranti Dawakhana.
It was a unique medical institution with specialized isolation and quarantine medical facilities for critically ill patients. The Nizam rulers also encouraged scientific research in the medical field for containing malaria, and small-pox. Sir Ronald Ross, who won the Noble Prize in 1902 for his research on Malaria worked at the Begumpet Hospital. Dr. S.Mallanna, the famous Surgeon of Osmania Medical Hospital founded the Chemical and Bacteriological Laboratory, which did pioneering research on anti-rabies vaccination and also popularized anti-plague inoculation.
It is interesting to note that the work done by a voluntary organization known as the Hyderabad Relief Association consisted of women who were very commendable. The volunteers not only visited several infected localities and induced the public, especially pardha-wearing Muslim ladies to take the patients to the Isolation Hospitals for medical treatment. They encouraged the public to get vaccinated, to evacuate infected localities and move to government camps with good sanitary facilities. The Association also did the philanthropic work of distributing free packets containing necessities of life and enough money for the purchase of milk to poor patients. Similarly, Bhagya Reddy Varma, the founder of Adi-Hindi movement in Telangana did yeoman service during the plague epidemic in Hyderabad city. He organized relief measures through the volunteers of Swastika Dal and Humanitarian League, for which he won a medal from the Nizam, Mir Oman Ali Khan. The government lauded the services rendered by the civil society organizations during the spread of contagious diseases like plague, cholera, small-pox etc.
Given the ignorance, prejudices, superstitious customs and tradition prevalent in the feudal society of Telangana, the voluntary organizations played a crucial role in motivating the people, especially the religious-minded men and women, to avail modern allopathic medicine and treatment. The non-governmental organizations and eminent persons like Lady Hyderi, Bhagya Reddy Varma dispelled the prejudices and conservatism of the orthodox public and encouraged them to adopt modern methods of treatment for the eradication of epidemic diseases. Such experiences of the past provide useful insights into the present handling of the COVID 19 by the government, especially the role of public institutions and enlightened civil society organizations and intellectuals.
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