India’s War Against COVID-19: Re-learning From the Porcupines

Wednesday, 03 March 2021


India’s War Against COVID-19: Re-learning From the Porcupines

Dwaipayan Bora | April 11, 2020 16:48 hrs

India’s response to the pandemic COVID-19 is a matter of concern to its citizens, as the dreaded virus overpowers more numbers of its population with infections every day. India however has the advantage of the lessons and experiences of other countries affected by this virus in fighting it back. 

To get into the genesis of this problem and the main sequence of events that culminated to make COVID-19 a global pandemic we have to go back to that fateful day of 10th December 2019 when Mr. Wei Guixian, a sea food merchant in China’s Huanan seafood wholesale market of Wuhan city went to a local health centre as he felt ill. Over the next three weeks many other vendors of the same market also fell ill and were hospitalized. They were then quarantined by late December. 

Following this, Chinese authorities identified a cluster of similar cases in the city on 29th December and two days later notified the World Health Organization (WHO) about it. China identified the new virus that belonged to the coronavirus family and named it 2019-nCoV on 7th January 2020. 

After four days, China announced its first death. This virus transcended Chinese borders as Thai government announced its first positive case on 13th January. WHO declared this virus spread as a global emergency on 30th January, the same day when India reported its first case in Kerala of a student who had returned from Wuhan. WHO named this new disease as “COVID-19” on 11th February. 

The virus spread continued unabated as nation after nation fell into its clutches through infections and community transmissions, causing mayhems of illnesses and deaths and on 11th March, WHO declared this outbreak as a global pandemic. Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) revealed on 19th March that it had not observed any community transmission till then as the Indian government stepped up its fight against the virus closing airports to international travelers, closing railways, closing educational institutions and other public institutions and places selectively. These were then followed by a Janta Curfew on 22nd March and an ongoing 21-day complete lockdown that started from 25th March.

From the experiences of other countries, it is understood that nations which responded quickly and effectively through aggressive and uncompromising virus containment steps were on the top of this virus spread, otherwise it goes out of hands. It has also come out that the containment measures are mainly a public participation exercise covering entire population of the country without any selectivity. One of the major requirements to win over this pandemic is to practice social distancing from others by staying at home or by working from home, and one does not have any other option but to follow it to the T. But why is it that lockdowns have been successful in some countries, while we have stumbled in implementing it successfully in our country? 

We know for sure that for a country as large and as densely populated as India, this is a challenging task. But going beyond this, is it a cultural issue by which we cannot easily live a separated and unconnected life due to our upbringing? Are we Indians conditioned in a way to fulfill the practice of social distancing effectively? As we are in the middle of the lockdown period this has to be understood for strategizing and re-evolving the correct actions for its successful implementation as mere conformity actions through law enforcement apparatus may not help.

It need not be emphasized that we Indians celebrate connection and negate separation. Our abundant festivals, rituals stand testimony to the high cultural value we place on connection and our relationships. While we highly value social relations we do not cherish the values of individuality and independence. This is mainly due to the framework of family in India, which provides the vital psychological support to its members implying our greater need of ongoing help, guidance and mentorship through life. This however does not mean that Indians cannot function when he is by himself, but it only means that they are more accustomed towards a collaborative familial approach. 

Thus we visit our friends and family members for every reason and on every possible occasion. This is quite in contrast to other societies - mostly the Western societies - where the dominant value system prizes independence, privacy and self-actualization. In essence, in a scale between fusion and isolation, we Indians tilt more towards the former side.

In a classic explanation on the optimum social distance that is acceptable to a people of a particular culture, the noted German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer came up with the “Hedgehog's Dilemma” to describe a human predicament. The concept is based on the following parable: “A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However, the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. 

In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told - in the English phrase - to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.” The balancing point differs across cultures. For Indians, the optimal position involves acceptance of more pain to get greater warmth.
Coming back to the COVID-19 offensive, it is also interesting to put into context the Chinese mind and its dominant Confucian world view. In “The Indians - Portrait of a People”, the authors Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar write about it as, “The glue that binds society is not law but what the Chinese call li, a civilized mode of conduct. A predominant feature of the Chinese world view is a sense of duty rather than the demand for rights.” 

In our war against this dreaded virus there are only two maxims that we Indians need to follow to win it convincingly. Borrowing from Schopenhauer’s imagery of human porcupines on a cold day, we should be prepared for lesser warmth and maintain a much greater social distance than usual. As this pandemic is a serious threat to our very existence, we should take each clarion call from the government on every response measure as a sense of duty, like the Chinese.

In this situation we should be ready to tradeoff between rights and duties. We should be vigilant and never allow our advantage to slip away as the responses evolve over time. The government machinery has to recalibrate their communication strategy keeping this in mind. Only well coordinated actions can galvanize the enemy into defeat and everyone’s participation is crucial in this exercise.

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