Let us be a bit less US-Europe centred. It is now four months since the new coronavirus epidemic began to emerge. As we are in a moment when we are realizing how much health and other disaster has been avoided (so far) by lockdowns and social distancing, let us pause to think. And not just gnash our teeth, or give false choices between two things, as the Western media does a lot.
There is a lovely interview a week or so ago with the head of Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases at the Indian Council for Medical Research, Dr. Raman Gangakhedkar. I recommend it (see link below) – you can catch up on YouTube and listen to it while doing something else like triye bred morung, peeling tonight’s vegetables, or mending a garment (in my case) or boiling jam (in Ram’s case). The interview is slow-moving in the Indian mode, and very witty and empathetic. The interview helps to get a deeper understanding, for us ordinary people, of how viruses operate and also how the study of viruses works. And that is the doctor’s aim: a kind of public education on infectious disease control.
His interview also shows how there are parts of the Indian Federal State (like this one that deals with communicable diseases) that are not Modi-fied, or not yet. Dr. Gangakhedkar seems to be to Modi what Dr. Anthony Fauci is to Donald Trump (although the doctor sometimes bows down too much, to my mind when he need not), or what Dr. Gujadhur is to Pravind Kumar Jugnauth.
Modi relied on the worst of police and army repression to impose a lockdown in India. It was heart-breaking to witness. Migrant workers were literally forced to pay the price for controlling the spread of Covid-19. And people like them, living in the informal settlements around the world, are clearly the most exposed to the virus, as are people working in the health sector, in food distribution, in cleaning, world-wide. But, it is worth looking at the relationship between the politician in power and the doctors that specialize in epidemics.
In Mauritius, it is important that we note that, so far, Prime Minister Jugnauth has been responsive to the doctors, and in particular this means he has heeded the advice of Dr. Gujadhur. (I must admit here that I am somewhat concerned at not having heard Dr. Gujadhur on the TV and Radio for a few days in the briefings, i.e. not since his isolation time. Does anyone know if he is OK?) So far, Jugnauth has shown, and this is indeed one of his few good points as a leader, that he is not as much a macho as Trump – which is not saying much.
In fact, Jugnauth is not macho. He can therefore more easily listen to and then heed the more rational, the more scientific, the more humane approach to an infectious disease, that is to say to the benevolent voice calling for good health for all people. More so than, say, Trump can. Jugnauth usually does the bidding of the sugar estate bosses for lack of a strategy of any kind, but during the epidemic, he has so far not done so. Trump vacillates. He says, “I impose a lockdown” (he listens to the doctors for moment), and then sans transition adds, “Liberate Michigan – from that woman Governor imposing lockdown!” Trump openly supports those machine-gun-wielding men, cheer-leader women in tow, who claim the right to do whatever they want, and they want to re-open their small businesses and get back out into getting and spending. Stop infringing their liberty, they cry. It’s their right! They want even, as the saying goes, the right to pee in the pool. That sounds more and more like what rights capitalism gives, in more general terms, now that I think of it. Trump supporting the right to pee in the pool. But, then again, Trump supported the anti-vaccine movement too.
Anyway, Jugnauth listens, so far, to the rational line of the need to bend or flatten the curve of the number of new infections on the graph – so as to save health-workers and the treasured Mauritian universal health care system, and also so as to slow the spread of the illness to allow the development of possible treatments that will be able to slowdown the replication of the virus in our bodies and the preparation of possible vaccines. These treatments and vaccines need to be developed, tested and sent through proper trials. Until then, the virus will go on popping up, and will need the kind of trace-test-isolate measures that Mauritius has so far shown itself good at, having practiced for 70 years since being the first, and one of the few countries ever to have eradicated malaria (the other five are Jamaica, Morocco, Oman, Russia and Syria). If we can, as a society, nurture this tracing capacity, we should be able to navigate things.
To get back to the macho issue.
About a week ago, the magazine Forbes ran a main article on the countries that, it thought, had best dealt with Coronavirus epidemic compared with others, and found it was the following:
What they have in common, Forbes argues, is a woman head of state.
Of course, the epidemic is in different stages everywhere, so it is just a pointer that Forbes is giving. And of course China, Singapore and South Korea have dealt rather better than most other countries and they have men heads of state, and Forbes just ignored them.
So, maybe it is a case of women tending to be humble enough, or caring enough, to listen to those who study how to limit the transmission of infectious diseases, when many men tend not to be. I can’t imagine where Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir might have fitted in on this scale, truth be told. And, obviously, no matter what the media imply, the more cautious a country is, the sooner it will be up-and-running again. So, being respectful of the consequences of an epidemic that is allowed to run riot actually helps minimize the effects on “the capitalist economy” (the god of the macho leaders). So, it was not, is not, an “either/or” situation.
Dr. Gangakhedkar, in this interview, refers, in passing, to his study (1993-7) on “Spread of HIV infection in married monogamous women in India”, the very title challenging the prejudices about AIDS in those times. Do listen to his interview.
for LALIT, a personal view.
*Interview conducted by Joyoti Malhotra, National Affairs Editor at The Print, 17 April, 2020: