Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


Other Dark Times of Epidemics Manipur has Gone Through in its Recent History

[avatar user=”R.K. Lakhi Kant” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]R.K. LAKHI KANT[/avatar]

These are hard times with the Novel Coronavirus threatening to knock at the doors of all and sundry irrespective of the social strata they belong. Under the circumstance, it would be interesting to do a cursory scan of the number of times the state has undergone similar crisis and how it fared the duress of past epidemics.

Many would already know that the coming of the Second World War was a big military event in this part of the world, but it may not have registered with them that it also brought about the unsavoury sight of people being affected by many diseases as an outcome of the conditions the war was fought in. According to religious historian, John Thomas, by the summer of 1942 Burma had been invaded by the Japanese and hundreds of thousands of refugees began moving into Manipur through the Tamu-Moreh road towards Imphal and Dimapur. Deprived of food, medical supplies and other basic amenities, many of them died of starvation and disease on the way. Some of them ate poisonous fruits and rotting canned food out of desperation and fell sick to die the next day.

To make matters worse the monsoons arrived. Cholera and other diseases like dysentery, malaria, typhoid and small pox spread rapidly, many women and children collapsed and drowned in the mud and dead bodies lay decomposed all along the road. Between Imphal and Dimapur, a distance of 133 miles, there was not a place ‘where you were out of the range of decaying human flesh’ Thomas wrote. According to an estimate, in what is said to be one of the largest mass migrations in history, by the autumn of 1942, about 600,000 people fled Burma into India by land and sea – of which, almost 80,000 died as a result of disease, exhaustion or malnutrition.

In the hills, village granaries became empty and procurement was impossible due to sudden inflation after the first bombardment of Imphal by the Japanese in February 1942. By the end of the monsoons in 1942 there were cases of famine reported in several villages, especially in Zeliangrong areas. The hospitality shown to the refugees was remarkable but the state of famine made the people physically vulnerable to all kinds of diseases that were brought by the refugees and local people who worked as labourers. Entire villages contracted diseases. In frequent outbreaks of disease in the next two years thousands died. It was into the midst of this famine-stricken, disease-ridden and impoverished state of affairs that fighting between the Japanese Imperial army the Allied Forces reached its peak in Manipur and the Naga Hills. Compared to this description, the present arrival of Coronavirus in the state seems, at least till now, seems to have caused much less affliction and suffering.

There is another account in the Cheitharol Kumbaba of Manipur being badly affected in 1829-30 by an outbreak of small pox and cholera. It states that its effects were particularly severe in the valley where large number of people died in agony. The epidemic started on May 3, 1829 and lasted for three months. The record states, “Many people died. There was no contact between one person and another person. They could not cremate corpses.”

An interesting anecdote relates why it is important to go for self-quarantine and hospital check-up, in disease requiring such measures, and why one should be aware of the do’s and don’ts so as not to put oneself and others at risk due to negligence. It’s the tale of Mary Mallon (1869-1930) who as a healthy carrier of Salmonella typhi became nicknamed “Typhoid Mary”, as many were infected due to her denial of being ill. Mary was hired as a cook in 1906 by a wealthy New York banker but six of the 11 people present in the hose contracted typhoid fever. The sanitary engineer at the house solved the mystery as Mary being a ‘healthy carrier’ and wanted to test her faeces, urine and blood, but she refused to comply. He also found that in eight previous families she worked as cook seven had experience of typhoid and out of 22 infected people some died. That year about 3,000 New Yorkers were infected by typhoid and probably Mary was the reason. Finally Mary’s stool test was found positive and she was transferred to North Brother Island in a hospital. Released in 1910, she started working again in kitchens of unsuspecting employers. In a Manhattan maternity she worked, she contaminated in three months, at least 25 and two of them died. Since then she was stigmatised as “Typhoid Mary” and was the butt of jokes.

Seasonal attacks of typhoid have been occurring in Bishnupur district in the state since 2001 and there was a suspected case of cholera too in Churachandpur, which proved to be otherwise, in which 28 children died in 2008. During September-October 1988 an extensive outbreak of cholera affected seven districts of Manipur with 2742 cases detected and a fatality rate of 0.8 per cent. In 1977 too there was a recurring outbreak of cholera in the state. Cholera has spread worldwide from 1817 to 1961 resulting in seven pandemics, with the sixth pandemic claiming 800,000 lives in India. The history of cholera dates back to the 18th Century when John Snow diagnosed a cholera outbreak in London city, holding a hand pump responsible for the outbreak.

Again, nearer to the state, mautam (Mizo for ‘bamboo death’) is a cyclic phenomenon that occurs every 48-50 years in Mizoram and Manipur, covered 30 per cent by wild bamboo forests. A species of bamboo flowers at one time during mautam followed by a plague of black rats in what is called rat flood. After the temporary windfall of seeds, the bamboo seeds are exhausted, causing a famine as the rats go for the stored and standing grains. What makes it fearful is history, like of the European bubonic plague or ‘Black death’ (1348-1350), which killed 80 per cent of those infected. At least 20 million people died, which was about two-thirds the European population at that time.

Among others, the accidental introduction of measles in 1875 by people travelling between Fiji and the west caused within few months the death of 20-25 per cent of Fijians and nearly all of their 69 chiefs. In the Carribean island Hispaniola it is estimated that within 50 years of the arrival of Columbus, his crew and their “pathogens” (like measles, influenza and small pox), the indigenous Taino people were virtually extinct.

Many people have a way with words and many expressions in English have origins linked to an infectious disease. “God bless you” after someone sneezes is said as it signalled that someone was unwell, perhaps seriously. A common phrase “Typhoid Mary” is used for a person who may not have symptoms of an infectious disease but can transmit it. Cholera became nicknamed “blue death” because a person dying of it may lose so many body fluids that their skin turns bluish gray. Also a single drop of water is enough to carry the infectious disease.

Among the latest epidemic in the state HIV is constant and unending. Manipur with hardly 0.2 per cent of India’s population is contributing nearly eight percent of India’s total HIV positive cases, with 7513 women among them. Manipur’s 1.06 per cent prevalence rate means that one in every hundred individuals is HIV positive, according to a recent study. There was also a sensational case when a 27-year-old Japanese woman arrived in Imphal and was suspected of having Ebola in 2015. Screening of foreign nationals in Northeast, including over 20 Nigerian football players was carried out in Assam. In the same year, the virus outbreak that started in February had claimed 2900 lives by August in West Africa. A state epidemiologist has gone on record stating that a weaker strain of Ebola virus has been found among monkey and bats in the state and an outbreak may occur if mutation of the weaker strain occurs.

Also Read