Mike Marqusee

‘I am satisfied the war is over,’ declared N.K. Sharma, the World Health Organisation representative in India. Certainly the war against the plague has disappeared from the newspapers and the airwaves. Business India, the fortnightly gospel of the country’s burgeoning corporate sector, questioned whether there had been a plague epidemic at all. Accusing India’s doctors and government officials of making a ‘presumptive diagnosis’ and its trade partners of ‘over-reacting’, an editorial complained that ‘the damage caused to the country’s image and economy is immense.’

A subtle variation on this theme could be found in the pages of the Times of India, where one commentator denounced the ‘Orientalist’ manner in which the Western media had covered the plague, linking it to the persistence of such exotic ‘medieval’ phenomena as caste, religious fanaticism and extended families. Indian protests against the foreign ‘over-reaction’ – many of which singled out the country’s Muslim neighbours for rebuke – commonly cited WHO statistics showing that since 1986 over one hundred people a year worldwide had died of plague, but until this year, none in India (although several in the United States). They contrasted the scale of the outbreak and the speed with which it was contained, at a cost of fifty lives, with the extent of the panic and the long-term threat to India’s reputation as a dynamic modern economy.

In one respect, Indian objections to the Western media’s Orientalism are justified. The Indian plague of 1994 was not so much the recrudescence of an ancient scourge as a symptom of the contradictions of the country’s manic drive towards economic liberalisation. The Orientalism of the Western press is, in fact, a mirror image of the complacency of the Indian élite. Both have a fatalistic view of the life of the country’s masses. Both assume there are intrinsic limits to the alleviation of poverty and suffering, despite the talk of India becoming a new economic powerhouse. The Indian middle classes have no one but themselves to blame for the global panic. It was their own reaction that set the trend, and their priorities that ensured the disease would become an epidemic in the first place.

Plague is endemic in rats in the wild. It becomes epidemic among humans as a result of ecological trauma: in this case, an earthquake in Latur, in the western state of Maharashtra, which forced plague-carrying rats out of their natural habitat, and a flood at Surat in neighbouring Gujerat which brought the disease to the cities. As long as Yersinia pestis, the plague bacillus, lives on in the forests, its spread among humans remains a possibility, no matter how economically advanced the society. Early detection is therefore the key. But in 1987 the Maharashtra Government overruled expert advice and closed down its plague-surveillance unit.

The central government was warned at least four times between 1989 and 1993 of the likelihood that plague would reappear. A group that met last year to co-ordinate surveillance noted that the number of infected rats was growing and recommended that the Hafkine Institute at Bombay resume the production of anti-plague vaccine which had ceased the year before. All this was ignored by a government increasingly preoccupied with wooing multi-national capital and accommodating World Bank demands for cuts in public spending.

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