Great powers are often built on the ruins of a catastrophe. Japan and Germany went into World War II as self-destructive and bloodthirsty imperialists. They emerged from it as peace-loving pacifists, championing human rights worldwide. America hurtled into its Civil War with bonded millions. It came out of it with slavery abolished. In the 1600s, Britain was besieged by a series of despotic and fanatical kings. It threw all of them out through a ‘Glorious Revolution’ and became a rights-based parliamentary democracy.
In each of these moments, heavy loss of life forced entire nations to reset their moral compass. The question is, with hundreds of thousands (and possibly even millions) now dead, will India’s Covid-19 apocalypse also result in a Great Power?
Mark my words: This is not a mere public health crisis. In recent weeks, news reports have shown that India’s problem goes far deeper than a mere shortage of health infrastructure. Serious questions have been raised over whether we value human life enough.
On the banks of the holy Ganga, bodies were found unceremoniously strewn about, with no identification and no proper farewell. These weren’t simply corpses. They were once part of loving families – folks who had sat around a dinner table with their spouses, children or grandchildren. Only a society that has dehumanised them entirely can be comfortable with their dead bodies thrown about like street trash (and to make things more vile, even the shrouds that had covered them were sneakily removed, apparently to make them invisible to aerial cameras).
Elsewhere, greedy elements have profiteered off people’s misery – hoarding life-saving medicines, creating a black market, and charging helpless families a fortune to save their loved ones. Volunteers in Covid-19 war rooms have been scarred permanently after being hounded by very powerful people, for nothing more than their religion. On the internet, young interns have been posting angry and desperate messages, after their employers fired them for not turning up for work, despite their being ill. In some universities, self-absorbed and unsympathetic deans have been bullying their students to finish their projects on time, despite the fact that some of them are bedridden with the virus.
Sure, for each of these stories, there are also a few heart-warming ones. There are those who have gone out of their way to cook meals for their sick neighbours; rickshaw drivers who have shuttled dying patients across the city for free; folks who have broken through barriers of religious identity to conduct each other’s funerals. Many would ask me to “be positive.”
But a nation is only as great as its most destructive impulses. How long do we want to neglect and ignore the grossly despicable events that surround us?
As children, many of us Indians are taught to compete in a cutthroat fashion against ‘Sharma-ji ka beta’ – to score better grades, secure higher salaries and build bigger houses than one’s peers. That beggar-thy-neighbour attitude is everywhere in our public life: a temple in place of a mosque; a bigger reservation quota for jobs and parliament seats; a larger piece of the budget for one’s own industry, community and neighbourhood.
Yet, if there is one thing that the virus has shown, it is this: In surviving at the cost of each other, none of us is going to prosper or live too long. It’s time for us to unlearn what we were taught while growing up and reset our moral compass. Indians need cooperation, not competition, and empathy, not envy. Can we possibly rise as a great power from out of these ashes?
(Mohamed Zeeshan is a student of all things global and, self-confessedly, master of none, notwithstanding his Columbia Master’s, a stint with the UN and with monarchs in the Middle East)