The coronavirus pandemic is a horrible visitation, but are there some things positive that may come out of all this hardship? While still under self-quarantine, dare we pluck up the courage to look over the wall?
There are at least five gifts that the coronavirus brought us. They are not presented here in any order of importance. However, it is hoped that if one were to acknowledge them, then it might help us reflect on our customs and mores that we have so far kept, rather uncritically.
Look East: Asian models are the best
Coronavirus has brought to our notice that in matters of public health and welfare, Asian models are far superior to western ones. When dealing with this pandemic, South Korea has shown the world that it is streets ahead of Europe, particularly the United States. It leveraged its strengths in Information Technology, community health and service-oriented bureaucracy to maximum effect and reined in the spread of coronavirus in the country. Unlike other nations, including wealthy western ones, there has been no economic shutdown in South Korea and life is carrying on close to normal.
By setting up hundreds of testing centres and by contact tracing of confirmed and suspected cases of coronavirus through GPS and mobile tower coordinates, South Korean authorities established a firm grip over who they had to watch over. Instead of losing billions of dollars every hour on account of economic suspension, often closure, if the US had invested a fraction of that in the kind of services that South Korea has, the world, would have been better off.
South Korea has also exposed two other bogus excuses. First, democracy impedes swift state action. South Korea is a democracy, unlike, say China, but it is also a flourishing capitalist society that houses some of the biggest industrial giants of today. Further, the kind of powers the South Korean government was able to muster could also have been invoked by the American President. If Donald Trump had invoked the provisions of the National Emergency Act and the Stafford Act in time, the US would not be going through its current economic mess. Come to think of it: Donald Trump was willing to declare an Emergency to build a wall along the Mexico border but not when it came to fighting a pandemic.
The second fallacy is that it is easier to effectively implement social policies in countries with a small population. South Korea is a big country with a population close to that of Spain. Seoul alone has over 9 million people. It is not as if we are talking of Hawaii or Papua New Guinea, or even New Zealand. By the way, look at Spain today. Coronavirus has ripped through its economy and society.
Nobody considers South Korea to be a global leader, as we do the US. But that may soon change now, thanks to coronavirus.
It is about time we recognised the hollowness of Davos-like summits and encouraged, instead, a gathering of health and social policy experts, at the highest level. The coronavirus pandemic has made clear how irrelevant these gatherings of corporate luminaries really are. They do nothing for humanity in times of social need but a lot for those pursuing private greed.
Rather than flashy Davos summits, which heads of state, corporate elite, even glamour people vie to attend, we need to encourage something different, and more meaningful to humankind. It is time we realised how important it is that we learn from the international experience of scientific experts on health and welfare practices. If such an initiative were already in place, the coronavirus pandemic could have been better handled. We generally tend to look at health as if it is primarily a national issue with no international ramifications, and how wrong we are.
On the diplomatic front too, foreign relations are primarily about war, armaments and commerce, and not about learning from one another about health, education, or social good. When heads of state go visiting countries, they usually take with them the bigwigs of business, but rarely scientists, health and policy experts, artists and intellectuals. In short, all those concerned about social welfare issues, better stay home.
For a quick take: contrast the funds available to the World Bank with the World Health Organisation and the difference would be shocking. Coronavirus tells us with deadly certainty that the world is one and health for all is truly more valuable than pursuing individual wealth, which is what world leaders have been doing most of the time.
The unintended benefit of wearing masks
Public spitting is a scourge of long standing in India but, for the first time, the fear of coronavirus is challenging it frontally. This could be a breakthrough moment in public health. It has been proven, time and again, how spitting spreads tuberculosis and now we even know how coronavirus droplets, from spitting and coughing can hang in the air long enough to infect people.
Therefore, leveraging on this inflection point, the government of India should conduct an all-out campaign against spitting, just as it did with open defecation. If it were to do so, the results would be dramatic and, right now, we are just ready for such an initiative from the top. People have begun to wear masks and that acts as a spit inhibitor. If a mask is on, then spitting becomes an act that is ‘in your face’ and not on ‘somebody else’s’. This robs the spitter of the pleasing after effects of shooting out coloured glob from one’s mouth.
The likelihood of catching coronavirus has led to a surge in the purchase of masks and a flourishing black market of this facial accessory has also grown. Therefore, the chances are that masks will continue to rise in popularity and, with that, spitting will be on the decline. All of us will end up healthier as a consequence.
No political news, let’s talk science
In general, politics is no longer the main staple news item, be it electronic or print media. Spittle-spraying and fur-flying debates on our political parties and leaders, on communalism versus secularism, have given way to more sober discussions on coronavirus and public health. Isn’t it also a good thing that, nowadays, we hear so little about terrorism?
Even correspondents in Kashmir are not discussing terrorists in Shopian but are instead focusing on deserted parks and orchards in the Valley. They are bemoaning the lack of tourists and rarely bring up the subject of violence. Al Jazeera too is dedicating a lot of coverage to coronavirus with proportionately much less time devoted to violence and conflict in the Middle East.
As a result, instead of politicians hogging the show, scientists and knowledge leaders are solicited by TV stations today for their opinions. This has made room for genuine experts to voice their views from which ordinary laypersons can only gain. The untutored, savage and opinionated verbiage of politics that one was regularly subjected to, has hopefully taken a long leave of absence.
Consequently, young people may find it more attractive to train their youthful energies on scientific matters and less on how best to politically outmanoeuvre others. After all, to be the centre of attention in the age of coronavirus, one has to do some serious reading. Books will probably get wider attention now, beginning with those that have been on one’s shelves for decades but never opened. All of this can only be good for the brain.
Getting over the foreigner complex
Finally, we will probably stop behaving in a servile fashion when we are in the presence of white people. It is probably our colonial mentality, or perhaps because we are neither white nor black but brown, that makes us grin like gibbons when interacting with somebody of European descent.
This may soon stop and for reasons which are not actually fair but will hopefully, be a kind of correction. As the coronavirus is widely believed to have come from outside India, there is a certain reticence today in getting too close to white people. Our general tendency has been to flaunt our association with foreigners and display them like trophies. We don’t mind inviting the Caucasian to our weddings, even if they are complete strangers to us.
Nor will a person returning from a trip abroad wear a ‘foreign-returned’ smirk, like a badge of honour as they are now widely suspected of spreading the virus. Things have come to such a stage that even mozzarella and Parmesan cheese are now suspected. This might give a fillip to our dairy industry whose fragile condition was one of the reasons India did not join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and stayed out of the regional economic pact.
In a lighter vein, the coronavirus pandemic has made some of our traditional customs take on newer meaning. As handshakes and air kissing are no longer acceptable for fear of passing on the virus, Indian greetings such as namaste and adaab are infinitely more preferable. In addition, we now realise that both these indigenous forms of salutations are gender neutral and so do not offend our cultural disapproval of physical contact between sexes in public spaces.
So, let us hope we survive this pandemic with little damage in order to enjoy the five benefits of coronavirus.
Blaise Pacal, the famous 17th century mathematician, philosopher and inventor, was probably the first advocate of self-quarantine. According to him, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” So, lock yourself in and do everybody a favour.
Dipankar Gupta taught at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.
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