During 1918, children all over the world who were playing jump rope were skipping and jumping, and singing a mournful new ditty doing the rounds:
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
Two terrors had gripped the world. One was the First World War of 1914-18; the other was the worldwide ’flu pandemic of 1916-18. The ’flu was far and away the bigger killer. The 1918 pandemic is widely regarded as the most devastating epidemic in recorded history. It affected one-fifth of the world. It killed more people in one year than were killed in all the four years in which the Black Death, the bubonic plague of 1347-51, raged. The virus responsible was particularly virulent, striking grimly, effectively, and without warning. Another feature of this epidemic was that whereas most types of ’flu virus tended to pick off the old and the young differentially, this particular strain seemed to prefer those between 20 and 45. Its effect was so great that the average US life span declined by 10 years. Physicians all over the world were rendered powerless. People walking to work would suddenly be struck down with illness and be dead within hours. In one case, four women sat down for a hand of bridge, intending to play late into the night. But by dawn, three of them had contracted the ’flu and had died.
Although this was a worldwide scourge, killing upwards of 70 million in its wake, no country suffered more gravely than India. According to some estimates, 16,000,000 Indians died during the 13-month period between June 1918 and July 1919. India suffered more casualties in those few months than were inflicted by the entire War in the rest of the world put together. The first cases of the ’flu were recorded in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) in June 1918. By July, Karachi and Chennai (formerly known as Madras) were being devastated. India’s situation was greatly exacerbated by the fact that most of its doctors were in active service with the British Army. This left the country unable to cope effectively with the epidemic. There was a shortage of doctors, nurses and medical supplies. To add to the situation, this was an era when antibiotics did not exist. Bodies piled up everywhere as the high death rate so characteristic of the epidemic took hold.