Religious Institutions and the Pandemic - Then and Now

Bubonic Plague, 1896 and Covid 19, 2020 - Administrative authorities had to grapple with a similar situation in 1896-97 with the outbreak of Bubonic plague

"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." - Albert Einstein

Beliefs provide a sense of familiarity in an unfamiliar world struggling with a pandemic. Therefore, many times people find solace in religion, ignoring instructions provided by the authorities. With COVID-19 in India, this has become somewhat ubiquitous, whether it be Hindus who are celebrating Ram Navami in places like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh or Muslims congregating in Delhi for a religious function. A significant share of the lockdown violations surfacing each day is related to some religious event. Consequently, the discourse around the pandemic has acquired religious overtones.

However, this is not the first time India has faced such a situation. Administrative authorities had to grapple with a similar situation in 1896-97 with the outbreak of Bubonic plague. Historical records of the experience of plague in Bombay suggest that there was mass hysteria, little information, and multiple conspiracy theories floating around regarding “other” communities spreading the disease. People from all religious communities started hiding information due to their mistrust of European methods. They believed that they would be “operated on during life and dissected after death”(Report on Bubonic plague, 1897 p.2), making detection and treatment almost impossible. The communities also had strong opposition to inoculation. The orthodox Hindus and Muslims strongly opposed inoculation under the ground that it was against their religion or for fear of imaginary ill consequences. The Jains were not ready to believe that no animal matter was used in the preparation of the serum for inoculation (Report of the Municipal Commissioner on Plague in Bombay, 1901 p.67,56).  No one brought their sick to the common Municipal Hospital on Arthur Road in Bombay. There were rumors that inoculation would be made compulsory, and consequently, many municipality workers received threats from the public. As a result, 200 placards had to be printed in the vernacular language, stating that inoculation was not compulsory (Report of the Municipal Commissioner on Plague in Bombay, 1901 p.53). In addition, Muslims were concerned that they would not be able to pray multiple times a day, whereas the Hindus were concerned regarding the mingling of castes. To add to the complexity, many communities such as the Hindu traders of Mandvi protested against the killing of rats as it was against their religious practice.

On 6th October 1896, the Municipal Commissioner of Bombay under section 434 of Municipal Act ordered forceful disinfection if necessary, but owing to the mass complaints, the Commissioner of Police anticipated a riot (Report on the Bubonic Plague, 1897 p.3). Finally, the Governor of Bombay sent a letter to the President of the Municipality stating the need for “larger and different measures,” which included the consideration for separate hospitals for each caste. The community leaders and businessmen took up the initiative to build these hospitals. Separate cooks, separate drinking water taps, and other provisions were arranged. Compelled by the situation, the Britishers were also forced to handover the treatment of patients to the Vaids or Hakims subject to the supervision of a European doctor(Proceedings of Council of Governors of Bombay,1898 p.77). By the time the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897  was enacted to control the Bubonic plague in India, especially in Bombay city,  it had already become evident at the ground level, that the success of managing the plague depended largely on how effectively the municipality could address the religious sentiments of each community. Therefore, in each report, repeated reminders were provided that customs should be respected though not much was mentioned in the Epidemic diseases Act itself.

In September 1899, a meeting was called in Muzaffarabad Hall under the Presidency of Mr. Justice Budrudin Tyabji in which laymen, priests, religious teachers, and native medical practitioners of almost every community were called to address the public. (Report of the Municipal Commissioner on Plague in Bombay, 1901 p.51). The Khoja community under H.H. Aga Khan’s leadership accepted treatment much more readily than any other community (Report of the Municipal Commissioner on Plague in Bombay, 1901 p. 67). Many Hindu and Jain leaders were inoculated, but there was a mixed reaction from the rest of the community.  It was obvious that religious practices are complex and it is almost impossible to understand every practice for an outsider.

Arguably, discrimination in India today is not as severe as it was more than 120  years ago. But, with the COVID-19, many have raised concerns about communalising the pandemic and exposing the  “communal cracks” in Indian society. These concerns have surfaced in multiple articles published in notable newspapers. Post the Tablighi Jamaat event, conspiracy theories implicating Muslims are everywhere. However, barring a reported case where hospital wards were segregated by religion for reasons unknown, nobody so far has raised the need for caste or religion based hospitals or separate water taps or cooks for each community. But, in the age of the Internet, information along with misinformation is freely available. And the fear of the “other community” is not absent.

But, everyone is doing their part as well. The donations from prominent figures from both minority and majority communities have set examples through their donations to fight the pandemic. Their funds typically are going into a shared pool, unlike their community members who had set up caste hospitals in Bombay around 1900. Temples are donating funds for COVID relief which are also going into common relief funds not targeted towards a particular religion. Many mosques are spreading awareness messages along with the adhan prayer. They are also doing door to door campaigns along with their social media campaigning to fight the coronavirus. There are appeals to the public to celebrate Ramzan by feeding the poor during the COVID-19 crisis and saying prayers at home. 

But currently, it appears that initiatives by the state, individuals, and religious institutions are occurring independently without any coordination between them. At this juncture, it is not a question of who is important. The central government, state authorities, along with different religious institutions and the common man, all have a role to play. Each has separate functionality, which helps in the smooth implementation of policies. One can argue that decentralized efforts by different institutions may be less bureaucratic and more effective. But the involvement of religious organizations in an equitable manner in the implementation of various initiatives would enforce the idea that every religion is fighting the pandemic together, and there is no “other” or conspiracy going on. Further, no community would feel marginalized as there would be a feeling of participation of each community in the common fight against COVID 19.  If done appropriately and in the right spirit,  this would help in fostering better communal harmony, better targeting of issues as well as better utilization of available resources. One wonders if the current political environment is ripe for such an endeavor in India today.


Commissioner, M. (1901). Report of the municipal commissioner on the plague in Bombay for the year ending 31st May 1900, part-I, general administration.

Gatacre, W. F. (1897). Report on the Bubonic plague in Bombay 1896-97. Times of India Steam Press, Bombay.

Council of the Governor, 1898. Proceedings Of The Council Of Governor Of Bombay Assembeled For The Purpose Of Making Laws And Regulations. 1897. Vol 35 (XXXV). Bombay: Government Central Press.

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