This article investigates the possibility of comparisons between the COVID-19 crisis in India and an earlier episode of pandemic crisis: bubonic plague in Bombay at the end of the nineteenth century. There are numerous apparent parallels. In both cases, Indians experienced an unprecedented and sweeping use of state authority to enforce minute regulations of everyday life. These regulations, on both occasions, were nominally universal in their scope but in practice bore most heavily on the working classes and specifically the urban poor. During both pandemic crises, the immediate consequence of the strategy of state control chosen was a massive flight of the urban poor: from Bombay between 1896 and 1898, and from many of India's major urban centers in the summer of 2020. The parallels and convergences mentioned above provide a basis for comparison. But they do no more than that: the emphasis of the analysis that follows is on the contrasts between the two pandemic crises. It is these contrasts between the two episodes, rather than the superficially more striking similarities, which offer a basis for reflection on the character of the respective crises. These reflections focus, at their core, on the mode of authoritarian state policy deployed in the two cases, and on the predicament of laboring classes during the two cycles of pandemic crisis.

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