Pandemics and Environment

Pandemics and Environment

Historical insights and foresight

Murari  Jha

Murari Jha

Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences

Drosophila Females
The Black Death (bubonic plague)
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As a school student in eastern Bihar, I often wondered about historical landscapes, the Ganga River, the annual floods and infectious disease outbreaks, the highways, the hills and jungles as the abode of bandits. The effect the overall environment of rural Bihar had on my mind was fascinating! I imagined that some historical battles must have been fought, right here, in the vicinity of where I stood. My young mind had recreated merchant boats plying in the Ganga with monks, military and merchants travelling through the highways. Well, that was how I thought of my natural surroundings when I was young. Today, as I write, the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the world, killing thousands, crippling the economy, and bringing countries to a grinding halt. And, I am left wondering, what insights can we as historians develop about the current pandemic COVID-19? Can it have anything to do with the environment as we have come to know from history?

In the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death (bubonic plague) proved devastating for a large part of Eurasia. According to estimates, between 75 and 200 million people perished within a few years. A little over a century ago, in 1918, the Spanish flu ravaged the world, killing an estimated 21 to 50 million people. In considering a pandemic, historians usually invoke the environment and larger social and political processes at play. They ask whether there was a correlation between the end of the Medieval Warm Climate (900–1300 CE) leading to the new life-ways in the fourteenth century and the plague outbreak. I wonder what the environment may reveal to us about this current pandemic once historians start looking into it.

Intrinsically related to environments are regions. One question that I often asked myself was whether Bihar, in particular, and India in general, had been historically an impoverished region in the world during the early modern period (1500–1800 CE). My research at Jawaharlal Nehru University and later at Leiden University revealed that early modern India was fabulously wealthy. The region was a leading manufacturing hub and had an incredible entrepreneurial past. The society was diverse, and the cooperation and interdependence defined social and entrepreneurial fabric of life. The urban centers and port cities were inviting and welcoming to people from distant parts of the world. People in the region were sensitive to the overexploitation of natural resources which is demonstrated by their veneration of water bodies and worship of certain flora and fauna. 

I have not lost my curiosity about the environment, rivers, regional histories and global interconnections. At the School of Arts and Sciences in Ahmedabad, I try to evoke curiosity about the historical past in the classroom. Students try to develop an ability to formulate their research problems, ask interesting questions, and solve them by offering plausible explanations. Students carry out their research by studying the available sources: secondary literature written by historians, contemporary historical accounts, or primary sources. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach further enriches students’ research experience. For example, students pay particular attention to the natural environment and landscape to broad base their explanations. They look beyond dates, dynasties, event-focused, and terra-centric histories. They consider regions, rivers, seas, long-distance routes and their interplay in the historical processes. I invite you to join this exciting journey which starts here at Ahmedabad University!

Author's Profile

Murari Jha

Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences

Murari obtained his PhD degree at the Institute for History, Leiden University and subsequently pursued postdoctoral research in the Department of History, National University of Singapore. He taught postgraduate students at the School of Historical Studies, Nalanda University and later held a visiting fellowship at Harvard University before joining the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University. His current research focuses on the processes of early modern globalisation by examining the Ganga River as a connecting fluvial bridge between South Asia and the global maritime economy. He offers courses on the Indian Ocean Interconnections, Early Modern South Asian Empires, and Introduction to Environmental History.


Environment, History, Arts and Humanities, Covid-19

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