The outbreak of COVID-19 novel coronavirus has created an unprecedented situation around the world. Humankind is no stranger to calamitous outbreaks of diseases. However, this is the first viral outbreak of this nature and scale in our lifetime.
Today my thoughts are with all those battling the virus, with the families of all the victims around the world, and also with the doctors, paramedics and health officials and all others who have put their lives at risk for the rest of us.
I commend people for their mature response in the face of the crisis. Their support is helping all institutions to work in a coordinated manner to fight the outbreak. Our healthcare system has shown great alacrity and competence in meeting the extraordinary and evolving challenge. Our leadership and administration have proved their mettle in these testing times. I believe that together we will weather the storm. I also commend the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, for taking pre-emptive measures in right earnest to contain the pandemic at the very beginning and reaching out to our neighbours in the SAARC to launch joint efforts to check its spread in the neighbourhood. Even the WHO has acknowledged India’s efforts as worthy of emulation for the rest of the world.
The outbreak has forced us to keep a respectful distance from others. This isolation, self-imposed or medically mandated, can be taken as an ideal opportunity to ponder on our journey so far and the future path. As we are passing through a tough phase, let us turn this challenge into an opportunity and try to decipher what nature has been telling us through this crisis. The messages are many, but for the purpose of brevity, I would dwell upon a few here.
We all know that hygiene is the first and obvious lesson. Precaution is the only cure for this new strain of coronavirus. As precaution, what doctors advise is basic hygiene, apart from social distancing. Sanitation and cleanliness are among the humblest of civic virtues, and it is easy to underestimate their significance. It needed a Mahatma to attach the utmost priority to them. In South Africa and in India, his historic campaigns always began with, or ran parallel to, the question of sanitation and hygiene. In 1896, Gandhiji was visiting India, and plague broke out in Bombay. He offered his services to the state, and the offer was accepted. As he was in Rajkot, he volunteered there. Do you know what he did as a volunteer? He inspected latrines and exhorted people to pay attention to cleanliness. We need to imbibe his lessons in our daily life, and in this year of his 150th birth anniversary, we may begin by rededicating ourselves to the cause of personal and social hygiene. The nationwide “Swachch Bharat Abhiyan” (Mission Clean India) is a precursor to this great social awakening.
Respect for nature may be the next lesson intended for us. Homo sapiens is the only organism that has overpowered all other animals, taken control of the whole planet, and even set foot on the Moon. Now it stands humbled by a microorganism. We would do well to keep in mind the fact that, at the end of the day, we are merely biological organisms, dependent on other organisms for survival. Humankind’s craving to control Nature and exploit all its resources for profit can be wiped out in a stroke by an organism we cannot even see with the naked eye. Let us remind ourselves that our ancestors saw Nature as mother, and asked us to respect it. At some point in history, we forgot ancient wisdom. When pandemics and abnormal weather phenomena are becoming the norm, it is time to pause and wonder where we lost the way, and how we can still make a comeback.
Equality may be a factor less apparent, but Nature tells us that we all are equal. This new virus strikes beyond manmade distinctions of religion, race and region. The world has been busy drawing distinctions and waging wars over us-vs-them. But we suddenly realise that in the face of a grave mortal threat like the present one, we have but one identity — we are human beings.
Inter-dependency is also something we tend to overlook in normal times. In my speeches, I have often referred to the Sanskrit dictum, “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, which means the whole world is but a family. Today, it turns out to be truer than ever before. We realise how deeply each one of us is connected with everybody else. We are safe in as much as we take care of the safety of others, not only of human beings but also of plants and animals. Faced with an extraordinary crisis, most people tend to be selfish, but this is a crisis that teaches us to think equally of others.
Though voluntary services through social mobilisation are not encouraged due to the highly contagious nature of the disease, there are many ways in which people can help contain and mitigate the viral spread. Every citizen can contribute towards raising awareness and equally by refraining from spreading panic, taking prudent precautions advised by the government. Those who can should also share resources, especially with less resourceful neighbours, and senior citizens who are vulnerable to the disease. The coronavirus challenge underscores the necessity for “action in absence of crisis”.
Nature is reminding us to acknowledge, with humility, our quintessential equality and inter-dependency. It is a lesson — imparted at a heavy price — that will come in handy in mitigating global challenges like climate change as well as in building a better, common future. In the meantime, I join you in reaffirming our resolve to come out of the present crisis at the earliest, stronger than ever as a nation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 20, 2020 under the title “Let’s listen to the crisis.” The writer is President of India.
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