In the weeks that have gone by since the outbreak of the pandemic COVID-19, is becoming more than evident that the emergency is not just that of health, but of the imminent danger of humans not being able to remain as humans, at least the understanding of humans as builders of civilisations standing on the edifice of deeply bonding enlightened self-interests and emotions. Right before our eyes, these bonds are under threat of crumbling as new rules are being written in matters of socialisation, and if these norms cease to be mere emergency measures to be removed after the dangers are gone, it is only imaginable what the new scenario of human relationships, evolved over 12,000 years since the receding of the last Ice Age and defined by the instinct to build and expand community bondages, will look and feel like. It is a disturbing thought without doubt, and we do hope science will be able to provide an answer to defeat the disease and give back humankind the confidence to be the social beings they have always been, and continue the path of the ever-expanding circle of empathy they have been on. In the worst-case scenario then, if it becomes evident there will be no cure for COVID and we do have to live with the virus forever, as indeed the WHO has suggested recently, we have to find means of doing so without too much compromises on all the values have made human what they are – humans.
The COVID fight has often drawn up the analogy of war. For more reason than intended, this comparison is uncannily apt. War we know have always thrown up both heroes but also, and probably in greater numbers, cowards. This has been so at every level of the society as even those of us in Manipur, with very few COVID positive cases so far, have witnessed. There are those who would recoil back into the mud like crabs, foregoing even assigned duties, in the hope this would save their own skins from the scourges of the virus, unmindful of any additional dangers this may cause to others or the larger society. For this section, additional sufferings of others do not matter so long as they are safe. They are even unhappy that close to 48,000 Manipuris stranded outside, many of them migrant job seekers or else students whose hostels have closed down, want to return home, as some of them might bring the virus to the state. It matters little to them that these young men and women, now probably in dire financial straits as most would have lost their jobs and income means, would be in acute mental trauma. What also needs to be noted is, unlike these unfortunate men and women, there would be many more who are in well placed jobs, with protected incomes and for whom accommodation and food are not an issue. In all likelihood, this section would have chosen to stay back till the crisis stabilises. If there are people who can afford to remain where they are, but have no compelling reason to return than being homesick, the government should indeed encourage them to delay returning.
However, what about those who are desperate to be home. In these times of existential crisis, can those of us fortunate to be home, afford to simply disown them and leave them to their fates just for our safety. It is of course true that the fear that some of the returnees may come with the virus is legitimate, as indeed some already have done, but this is the price of belonging to a human community, and such a community must be willing to mitigate the sufferings of each other member in times of crisis even if it involves some risks to the wellbeing of the self. This is what being human is about, and this is why it is sad to see so many apparently prefer to be crabs and see no other meaning in life than simply clinging on to ‘bare life’. Or to take a more lyrical analogy from Chief Seattle, a Native American leader: “to be happy just existing and not living.” Wars of course also throw up heroes, and thankfully we have plenty of them too. Frontline health workers committed to their noble professions and going out to save lives willing to take all the risks. There have also been plenty of evidence of common man heroism. Ordinary young men and women from the many villages in the hills and valley coming out to raise resources to help the needy. They are the ones keeping the ember of hope alive that even amidst the darkness of the pandemic.
The war analogy is interesting in another way. War implies an external aggression, and no points for guessing that the virus is this aggressor in the present case. But war sometimes can evoke disproportionate responses which themselves can be harmful. The virus, of which we now have a pretty good cognizance from a sizeable literature on it by now made accessible to all by the internet, attacks and destroys the respiratory system of the victims. We also have equal cognizance of the way the body responds to the virus, and this response too can be excessive and life threatening. Hence the remedy sought is not just to neutralise the virus but also to moderate the body’s own response so that inflammations caused do not themselves become a danger to the body. The threat therefore is as much external as it is within. Curiously, we have seen this duality in the way our society is responding to the present crisis as well. Outside the region, we saw this in the racism against the Northeast amidst the COVID scare; we also saw this in the opportunistic religious hate mongering by zealots; we again saw it in the paranoid and heartless reactions in Manipur and Meghalaya when their first cases of COVID positive patients were discovered etc.
As stranded Manipuris return home, what we need is a more realistic view of the problem, moderated by compassion for fellow beings. The disease is extremely contagious and can be fatal, therefore dangerous, but we also by now know that it spreads through physical contacts and from respiratory track droplets from infected persons. We also know infected persons do not necessarily show symptoms. This being so, if the state has the means, all returnees should be tested for the virus. However, since we know the state has not acquired this capability when it had the time, all returnees must be made to go through compulsory and strict quarantine so that the virus would have completed its incubation cycle even if any of them are carriers. If some are found to be positive of the virus infection, they must be taken for treatment. But if others show no symptoms after quarantine, therefore reasonable to presume they are clean of the virus, they should be allowed to go home. Since the hope to remain a green zone always is now unrealistic, what all of us must strive is to not let the virus spread beyond the capacity of our health infrastructure to handle. We must do this with the faith that all of us together will be able to ultimately defeat the disease with no loss of lives. Under no circumstance however, must we abandon our basic sanity and humanity. Indeed, the way we respond on this onerous challenge in the weeks ahead will determine the depth of civilisational values our society has imbibed and internalised.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author