An inspiring statement of honesty and courage
Ashish Jha’s statements as Biden’s new Covid-19 response coordinator comes from a keenness to own mistakes on a road that is rough, to learn from them, and to correct them
“To the American people, I promise I will be straightforward and clear in sharing what we know, in explaining what we don’t know and how we will learn more, and what the future will ask of all of us.”
The Bihar-born Harvard physician, Dr Ashish Jha, 52, who has only recently been appointed Covid-19 response coordinator by United States (US) President Joe Biden, said this in a statement released by Brown University, where he was the dean of the school of public health.
I have not read a more moving statement in a long, long time. It comes from a clear mind, clean intent, and honesty and sincerity of purpose. It comes from total humility about the limits of human intelligence, human endeavour and the limitlessness of human fallibility. Above all, it comes from a keenness to own mistakes made along an earnest journey on a road that is rough, to learn from them and – most significantly – to correct them.
Public health policy is an area where such mistakes are entirely possible, given that policymakers are also human, and because situations such as the one caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are wholly new and have caught the world unaware of many of its ways.
And so Jha has said something that is only to be expected from a person of responsibility. But where his words are so unusual, unique, almost, for our times, is in his use of the following expressions, “keywords”, as current jargon would have it: One, I promise. Two, I will be straightforward. Three, I will be clear. Four, I will share what we know. Five, explain what we do not. Six, we will learn more. Seven, (so that we do) what the future will ask of us.
His use of the “we” is important. It shows his sense of partnership with his colleagues and others helping him respond to the virus’s challenge in the US. He is not assuming, and much less claiming, some special status or position in which he will stun or startle the American nation by an individual’s – his – act of daring or caring. Jha is being a team-man. But the “we” is not just about his team. If one ponders his words, it becomes clear that he is, in fact, speaking of American society itself. “We, Americans, know this much”, he is saying, “and not more. There is a great deal about this pandemic that we just do not know – its behaviour, its impact, its future mutations, and ways of ending its sway. And so even as we learn more, we, who are directly in charge of this response, will share our learning, our understanding, the gaps in those, with all fellow citizens. We are not know-alls, but we are going to know-as-best-as-we-can.”
And then, he says he promises to do this. Not just intends to, proposes to, but promises to.And straightforwardly by which, I take it, he means to say he will speak frankly, honestly, not to impress, not to conceal, not to obfuscate, certainly not to under-state or whitewash but to speak the true word, truly. The matter is, after all, one of life and death.
This kind of honesty, plain-speaking, this entering into a covenant with the people of his country, makes what he has said more, much more, than a new office entrant’s assurance of good aims. It is a word being plighted, a commitment being made in the solemnity of public responsibility by one who is aware of his limitations, even his failings, but aware too that his new role has lifted him to a plane where he must and will rise to its expectations.
How many in our political world, in our professional world, in India today, would have the courage to say that in the glare of the judging day? How many would place their word on the table so straight, like that? I cannot remember a politician in living memory say, “I promise I will be straightforward.” “Straightforward” — that is all. Difficult!
To say “I will uphold the Constitution”, “I will protect the people and the laws”, “I will serve the well-being of the people” is to light lamps at the altar of great aims. “Straightforward” is different. It is simpler in its sound, but tougher in its verifiability. Done into the Hindi of everyday speech, “straightforward” translates into imandar, that is, honest, reliable, true to his word. A person either is or is not imandar. In fact, the meaning of imandar is best understood by its opposite – be-iman.
As war flames across Europe, hatred is ignited in peoples’ minds, lies and deceit become politics’ daily fare, a single voice promising nothing more but nothing less than imandari to his people makes rare, almost divine music.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former diplomat
The views expressed are personal