In a calamity there is usually a slight lag before heroes make their entrance. In a pandemic, for instance, the starting minutes of the reel are entirely the virus notching up victories as was the case with HIV, small pox,
Ebola or the bubonic plague. Covid-19 is somewhat of a departure in that the story begins with an act of heroism in China, entwined in the discovery of the virus itself.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, was the first to suspect that there was more to a series of patients being brought to hospitals in Wuhan with respiratory distress, noting the similarity with a SARS outbreak 15 years ago. As to his fate, it was just as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.’
Having noticed similar pneumonia symptoms among those who had stalls in a seafood market, Wenliang made it public on Chinese social media, mistaking it for SARS. It went viral. Whereas it now seems no one can possibly not see a pandemic when it hits, the response by the Chinese authorities was to punish him in the modes known to totalitarian societies. The Economist would write about him later: ‘…he was summoned to the police station. There he was accused of spreading rumours and subverting the social order. He then had to give written answers to two questions: in future, could he stop his illegal activities? “I can,” he wrote, and put his thumbprint, in red ink, on his answer. Did he understand that if he went on, he would be punished under the law? “I understand,” he wrote, and supplied another thumbprint.’ Note that Wenliang submitted. By itself, what is then the heroism in the story? But there were other acts to follow. Wenliang got infected by a patient. The Chinese state, now unsettled by the public anger at his treatment, apologised to his memory and stamped him a hero. The Economist’s obituary had this to add: ‘His fame had spread far and wide, too. Reporters, even from the New York Times, wanted interviews. These had to be done by text and via WeChat, since from late January he could not breathe on his own and was hooked up to continuous-flow oxygen. It didn’t help as much as he expected—his blood-oxygen saturation levels got no better. But online he could go on making defiant and upbeat remarks. There had to be more transparency. The truth was important. A healthy society should never have just one voice.’ In his ailing last minutes, he had also found his voice again.
If heroes are individuals who through character keep the pages of history rolling in a virtuous direction, then Wenliang fits the bill. He did not possess the immense strength of classical protagonists of mythology but that is not a requirement for the modern age. Individual physical prowess went out of fashion once mechanised armaments arrived and that was another aspect of heroism earlier—it was tied to violence and victory. Without them, the Pandavas wouldn’t be the leads of Mahabharata or Rama in Ramayana. For the modern hero, other qualities become more important—suffering through adversities, the overcoming of it and the final defeat of a stronger enemy even when he is not part of a defined war. Wouldn’t Wenliang’s story be less tragic and poignant if he had not been up against an all-powerful government that considered only itself the repository of right action? What if he had been in a politically free society that considered freedom of expression more sacrosanct than social order? Quite possibly, even if the government didn’t approve of his insight, he might just have been ignored altogether. The future would prove him right eventually, but he would be lauded as a seer and not a hero because there was no one shutting him down.
Adversity is a necessity for heroism and you can apply this measure to another phenomenon in India that led to millions of heroes. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a migrant labourer in a city far away from your native home, sending every little surplus back and when the lockdown begins, it sees your source of income end abruptly and the little you had on your person dribble away like water held in a closed fist. You can choose to remain where you are, begging and scrounging or hoping that the government’s scraps will eventually reach you. Or, with no form of transportation available, the certainty of arrests and the increasing news of police brutalities on those flouting the lockdown notwithstanding, you take a bottle of plastic water, a cheap backpack with a towel and change of clothing, and start walking in the general direction of a village 2,000 kilometres away. The destination would be half-a-year away on foot but you walk anyway and that is either being stupid or heroic. In any case if that is not looking adversity straight in the eye, what is? It might not be the arrogance of the warrior and a docile fatalism that propelled the migrant labourer who walked, but he was refusing to be a victim of his own adversity.
If heroes are individuals who through character keep the pages of history rolling in a virtuous direction, then Li Wenliang fits the bill. He did not possess the immense strength of classical protagonists but that is not a requirement for the modern age
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The consequence of such heroism then? A Government that, in its omniscience, was quick to announce the national lockdown without giving any one time or space to plan their survival—and was then floundering on what to do as the spread refused to relent—had to ultimately give in to the most voiceless of Indians. The walking of the poor must count as the biggest act of civil disobedience in independent India and it wasn’t even political. We don’t really know whether they harboured anger; only a resolution that there was a limit to what they would endure and not all the policemen in all the states that they would have to get through could prevent them from exercising their right to survive. Like the 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari, who took her father on the backseat of her bicycle and rode 1,200 kilometres. How can anyone do something like that unless you never look back after the first turn of the pedal? How is it any different from the ventures of Greek heroes into unknown worlds as fearsome creatures blocked their journey? There is a difference. Vast rewards awaited should they succeed and it made the risk acceptable. For the walking migrants, there were no chests of gold, just more misery at the end, but it was home. The simple act of reaching home can be heroic in the present.
The movie Contagion imagined a pandemic which, except for the lethality, has parallels to how Covid-19 developed and the world’s reaction to it. In it, a vaccine is fast-tracked when a scientist tests it on herself. There are instances in medical history where this has been done. A Washington Post article which wrote about it, said: ‘In the race to discover how disease spreads and what treatments might stop it, someone has to be tested first. That someone is often the doctor in the white coat. Jonas Salk tested the polio vaccine—which contained a nonliving form of the virus—on himself and his children before giving it to strangers. In 1986, Daniel Zagury, a French immunologist, appointed himself to be the first person dosed with an experimental AIDS vaccine. A 2012 study identified 465 episodes of doctors’ self-experiments, with 140 of them related to dangerous infectious diseases. Eight self-experiments resulted in death, including physicians and scientists trying to curtail outbreaks of plague, typhus, cholera and yellow fever. What would posses someone to, say, drink a hearty soup infused with cholera bacteria, as Max Joseph Pettenkofer did in 1892? “Historically, self experimentation was an important part of the scientific process, allowing medical advances that would have been hard to achieve otherwise,” wrote two researchers in a rollicking 2018 paper titled “Adventures in self experimentation.” And why? “Because no sane human would agree to be a research participant and no ethical review board in its right mind would approve the experiment,” the researchers wrote.’
We haven’t seen any noteworthy instances now and no self-experimentation has changed the course of the virus. No one has magically willed a silver bullet to end the contagion. Instead, what we do have are the regular foot soldiers transcending their ordinariness by doing what they have always done but in a changed environment. At least now, doctors and nurses are more aware of the nature of the beast and have access to greater protection. But rewind to the beginning of the pandemic, when there was almost no personal protective equipment and healthcare workers turned up at hospitals daily knowing that it was just a matter of time before they got infected. Men and women doing their duty in the face of death. Policemen, sanitation workers, bankers, ambulance drivers, security guards, bus conductors and drivers transporting essential workers—all those who went to work while the rest remained safely inside their homes by government diktat.
The movie Contagion imagined a pandemic which, except for the lethality, has parallels to how Covid-19 developed and the world’s reaction to it. In it, a vaccine is fast-tracked when a scientist tests it on herself. There are instances in medical history where this has been done
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Even for the essential workers, the alternative existed of refusing to comply. You could lose your job, but what does that weigh against death? And many did too. When the Maharashtra government asked municipal workers to resume duty after the first unlocking, a large number of them remained home and attendance only increased after threats of suspension. But there were also bank employees from the private sector who kept working from the beginning of the lockdown and, for a profession that is not predicated on physical risk, the number of infections and deaths they saw were extraordinary. Just this week, the Hindu Business Line would write of one banking office in one tier-2 city: ‘Less than a week back, 30 employees of State Bank of India’s administrative office on McDonalds Road in Trichy were tested positive, while a senior manager succumbed to the disease. Employees then claimed that there were at least 38 positive cases in the campus.’
There is a gradation, an inverse correlation of power, in the heroisms of essential workers. The higher up one is on the ladder, the less the heroism; and the lower the rank the greater the courage. In the police force, constables bore the maximum risk while the IPS officer the least. In hospitals, the wards of infected were worked by junior doctors and nurses while senior doctors gave instructions from elsewhere. The irony is that society’s admiration is reserved for cases at the top, as when Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tested positive. But even among politicians, those who worked in the slums and containment zones were the local leaders and volunteers. In Mumbai, as the sero-surveys are being conducted by the administration, it is the corporators who are providing political support and legwork. The MLAs and MPs are not seen as much. The ministers even less. In Kerala, it is the local ASHA volunteer in villages, part-health worker part-politician, who turned the tide when the disease first hit and now, as the second wave is being unleashed, they are once again at the frontlines.
Few will get recognition like Sonu Sood, a Bollywood star whose relief works has brought him admiration and praise. But that is only because the rest of Bollywood has done little. He is famous because he is the exception. When the pandemic is over, only the feats of individuals like Sood or Wenliang or Jyoti Kumari will be remembered. That is the nature of stories. The rest will be a saga of anonymity; the mere act of doing made extraordinary in an extraordinary time.