HYDERABAD: The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic seems to have triggered a part of medical history. As half a dozen countries have now proposed Covid-19 passports to allow foreigners in, old medical records of Hyderabad and British India reveal that the issuance of special permits called ‘passports’ during outbreaks of pandemics and epidemics like the plague was an established practice then.
The princely state of Hyderabad, which was hit by the plague epidemic for the first time in 1911-12, had introduced what was known as plague passport. While Hyderabad was the first princely state in British India to introduce the concept with stringent medical checks at borders, many provincial governments that were directly ruled by the British too had such passports to restrict the movement of outsiders.
Bahrain, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Singapore and Thailand have proposed Covid-19 passports to allow foreigners a hassle-free entry. Those holding Covid-19 passports would not be quarantined or isolated on arrival. A passport issued for a specific disease is essentially a document certifying that the bearer has been immunised or not suffering from the infectious disease concerned.
INTACH city convener P Anuradha Reddy told TOI that plague passports were issued in triplicate – one copy kept as record with the issuing authority, second copy sent to the officials at the destination by post in advance, and the third copy was given to the passenger. “Special plague camps were set up and all border railway stations and road checkpoints were manned by health and police officials and only those free of plague were allowed inside the state,” she said.
French traveller and author Robert Chauvelot, recalled in his famous book, Mysterious India, published in 1921, how he was questioned several times by the police on his arrival at Secunderabad railway station. This despite him holding a plague passport issued by the Nizam government.
He also explained how he was made to undergo a second sanitary examination at the railway station though he came from Bangalore, which was free of plague then. He said his plague passport was exchanged for a new document and directed to report to government hospital on alternate days to ensure that he is free of plague.
Archival data reveals that ships entering ports in British India had to display special plague flags during day and put out white signal light during night. They were allowed at ports only after a thorough medical inspection of the passengers.