What would Gandhi have done today?

In times of a health crisis, he showed exceptional care and extreme sternness. India is doing it now
Gandhi spelt out the responsibilities of individuals and society as well as that of the municipality (National Gandhi Museum)
Gandhi spelt out the responsibilities of individuals and society as well as that of the municipality (National Gandhi Museum)
Updated on Jun 04, 2020 07:37 AM IST
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Gandhi is unlikely to have known the word pandemic.

For that matter, he never used the word “ecology”.

And yet, there are few who knew the core of those words, the heart of their meaning, better than him.

Gandhi’s experience of epidemics went back to his days in South Africa when, as he records, the plague hit an area near Johannesburg where miners lived. This was in February 1904. He writes in his autobiography that one night, 23 miners returned to their quarters with “an acute attack of the plague”. A colleague of Gandhi’s, Madanjit Vyavaharik, “bravely broke open the lock of a vacant house and put all the twenty three there”. Gandhi, on learning of this, cycled to the location and wrote to the Town Clerk (equivalent to a corporation commissioner), and told him of the circumstances in which the private property had been taken possession of and the reasons for that most unconventional step. And then, the two informed Dr William Godfrey, a Tamil doctor who was practising in Johannesburg.

Godfrey rose to the occasion magnificently. Becoming both nurse and doctor, he took as much of the professional responsibility as he could possibly cope with. But more help was needed, and Gandhi called four young Indians in his law office to join in, which they did, ungrudgingly. “It was a terrible night”, Gandhi says, “that night of vigil and nursing”. That second role — nursing — was one that Gandhi was adept at, but the Black Plague was something beyond his experience. But with Godfrey there, giving patients “their doses of medicine, to attend to their wants, to keep them and their beds clean and tidy, and to cheer them up”, was what he and his associates were to do.

Gandhi says that “the indefatigable zeal and fearlessness of the youths worked” and he rejoiced in seeing that.

If Gandhi gave in the plague experience an example of exceptional care, he gave in another, an example of extreme sternness. In 1926, when Ahmedabad faced a serious problem in the shape of rabid stray dogs, he wrote in Young India: “We recognize the duty of killing microbes by the use of disinfectants. It is violence and yet a duty…To destroy a rabid dog is to commit the minimum amount of violence…a city-dweller who is responsible for the protection of lives under his care…if he kills the dog, he commits a sin. If he does not kill it, he commits a graver sin.” And he lent his clear and emphatic support to their elimination.

Today, those two experiences of his answer the question that has occurred to many: What would Gandhi have done today?

Like Gandhi, we can rejoice, too, that we see the main elements of that experience of citizens battling plague in Johannesburg in 1904 in the way the coronavirus disease is being addressed the world over. We have in the amazing example of Dr Prakash Gatta, the Indian-origin surgeon in Tacoma, Washington state, something to hail. As a doctor who contracted the virus himself, he has battled it to recover and is back at the hospital, working and describing what he went through.

There are Gattas across the continents doing the same. We have, in India, the most extraordinary examples of political executives, administrators, medical professionals, health care providers, lab assistants, nurses, policemen and policewomen, sanitary staff doing work that can only be called heroic. We, citizens, must replace the icons of commerce, the creators of the market, manipulators of our political, social and cultural mindsets, all these false gods and goddesses, by these real-life bravehearts who have put their lives at risk to halt the virus in its tracks.

We must also rejoice in the way we, as a people, have ungrudgingly accepted the restrictions imposed on us. The lockdown will stay with us with, hopefully, sensitive modifications to help individuals in difficulty, for a while. And we will be compliant. That is because we believe in the inherent conscientiousness of the government. A new culture of private and public hygiene, which requires sternness with ourselves and our surroundings, must emerge from this experience.

Gandhi’s ecological intelligence warned us of making a cult of materialism that will recoil on itself and have what we consume, consume us. That is staring us in the face today. It is challenging us to see its logic and adopt it. Greed — market-created, market-driven, market-manipulated — cares little for hygiene, for the callous zoonotic origins of sickness that experts such as Srinath Reddy have been warning about for years. That greed has got us by the throat now.

The Wuhan market is where it is. Blaming it in isolation is absurd for there is a Wuhan market in every city, town and thoroughfare. There is a Wuhan market in every one of us.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed are personal

    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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