The novel coronavirus pandemic has created waves of panic and fear in India and the world. Some of us fear for the safety of loved ones, or for family elders in other cities. Others fear much of their savings vanishing into thin air in the ongoing stock market meltdown. Indians who sought refuge in front of TVs and phones on Janata curfew Sunday must have panicked after hearing about the possibility lakhs being infected by the coronavirus and 30,000 succumbing to the scourge by May.
So, how does one fight and overcome fear? There is no better way to understand it than to look at it from a soldier, sailor or airman’s perspective.
Fear of failure on mission
Fear for a soldier is the onset of doubt that a mission will not be accomplished. Will I get the terrorist in the ongoing cat-and-mouse hunt in the dense jungles of Kashmir’s Hafruda? Can I navigate through a horrendous storm with 20-feet swells and get my crew to safety as captain of a small patrol boat? What happens when an instructor pilot, confident that he can recover from a spin manoeuvre that his pupil has got wrong, suddenly finds that he is taking longer than the manual says he will take to recover?
In all these cases, the onset of fear is the common denominator. What helps in overcoming it are the very basics of behavioural conditioning like courage, fortitude, resilience, self-belief and tenacity typical of a boxer as s/he fights his/her way out of a corner. When these are reinforced with good leadership, training, mentoring, situational awareness and processes, what you get is pretty much an iron-clad armour against fear of all kinds.
A close call
It was a brilliant morning on 4 February 1986. As I climbed past 3 km (about 10,000 feet) out of the Bareilly local flying area in my MiG-21 on a training mission, Nanda Devi and Kamet stood out in the white landscape ahead. But that was farthest from my mind because I was busy learning to manoeuvre with two heavy EW (electronic warfare) pods and a belly tank. Halfway through a tight turn at the prescribed angles of attack, my aircraft flipped on its back and I said to myself: “Hey this is not normal.”
I pushed the stick forward as an instinctive response to reduce the angle of attack, but that only aggravated the problem. I looked at the altitude — it was 2.8 km — and said to myself, “No problem, I still have 800 metres to figure out what to do before I decide to eject.” Then, as the altimeter wound past 2.3 km, I felt doubt and fear for the first time. I prepared to eject but then blacked out because the aircraft started oscillating between extreme positive and negative gravitational force. None of the fanciful movie stuff of my whole life flashing past me in those last moments — just a sense of helplessness at being unable to eject and the fear of plunging into the trees below.
Then came this tearing sound and the easing of the oscillations, and even though I must have by now been below 1 km and was inverted, my training kicked in as I coaxed the MiG-21 out of the dive, resisting the temptation of pulling back at the stick and stalling the aircraft. All I heard was the soothing voice of then Group Captain D.N. Rathore who had taught me to do a slow-speed loop beginning at 500m on a cloudy morning a few winters earlier at Adampur.
“Easy boy,” I told myself exactly as he did. When I finally recovered, the trees around a playground were above me. It was a miraculous escape as fear, training and providence pooled in, as they often do in such situations. My overalls were drenched in sweat and I was trembling all over when I landed, but I was happy to be alive.
Fear is never the solution
So, the simple message is that fear is normal but never the solution, particularly in these calamitous times. Conditioning of the mind, situational and information awareness, best practices in whatever you do and an abundance of hope is a strategy that merits serious attention today.
During WWII, citizens in battle-ravaged countries like Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia had very little information or knowledge of what was going to happen. They mostly left their fate in the hands of their leaders and were advised to follow a basic survival plan. Those who complied survived. The landscape today is vastly different with leaders, influencers, professionals, social media and many more emerging as stakeholders in helping citizens fight fear. Let us get back to the basics during the coronavirus pandemic, and do so responsibly.
The author is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the Indian Air Force. Views are personal.