As we ended a year wrecked by the Covid pandemic I am reminded of the famous book by Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities which begins thus:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness;
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
These lines capture the essence of the year 2020. A year which started with a lot of promise and hope. Hope of Rotary connections and Rotary opportunities. But the year descended into darkness and despair as the Covid pandemic struck, bringing the world to its knees.
In my 44 years of association with the medical profession — as a student, intern, resident and then consultant, I haven’t seen such despair, denial, fear and mental anguish, as this pandemic has caused. As a frontline healthcare professional in this Covid crisis I have seen people’s reaction ranging from incredulity — ‘Who me? Covid? Can’t be’; to fear and shock ‘Why me?’; to stigma and social boycott ‘Oh! He/she has Covid’. People and housing societies formed their own rules and parameters, often unrealistic and irrelevant but enforced strictly nonetheless.
Amidst all these rational and irrational reactions and stories of misery of the migrant workers, homelessness and hunger, there were plenty of rays of hope.
The pandemic has shown that this crisis is fuelled by poverty, weak health systems and lack of safe water, sanitation, education and global cooperation.
Like the doctor couple in Jaipur themselves preparing masks for free distribution to the poor; or the J & K cop whose rap jingle on corona went viral; or the Tata group which supplied free food packets to health workers in Mumbai for months on end during the times food was not available due to the lockdown. Hats off to the health workers and other frontline essential workers who kept the world running often at great risk to themselves and their families. These and many such stories of hope and sacrifice restore our faith in humanity. These and many others like them are the unsung heroes of these pandemic times. Many of these stories are the stories of Rotary and Rotarians.
I believe that richness is a state of our mind. If a person has lot of money, that person may be wealthy but not necessarily rich. If a person has no money, he may be broke, but is not necessarily poor. As my dad used to tell me: “It’s not how much you have, but what you do with whatever you have, that matters.” As Emerson says, “Without a rich heart, wealth is ugly.” And so many people around the world, many of them Rotarians have really shown a rich heart in these trying times.
The pandemic has shown that this crisis is fuelled by poverty, weak health systems and lack of safe water, sanitation, education and global cooperation. The Covid-19 crisis has put a harsh spotlight on a number of issues and problems — on the lack of preparedness of countries, many of whom were caught unawares, on the neglect of public health systems and on the sheer apathy and denial of many world leaders and good parts of the population who chose to go about ‘business as usual’. This has come as a shock to all countries and has exposed vulnerabilities of vital supply chains, lack of availability or deployment of critical care equipment and the inadequacies of public services.
There are some pluses: better environment, more scientific collaboration, quicker breakthroughs, improved communication, positive and good use of the virtual communication medium and the world becoming truly a global village. The world has to now make the right choices in its path to recovery.
Closer home in India where public healthcare spending is just 1.3 per cent of the GDP we realise the importance of making the public healthcare system more robust and better equipped to face future pandemics, should they occur, when they occur. Not just well-trained doctors and nurses but properly trained paramedics, vaccinators, lab technicians, Asha workers and other support staff, along with adequate ICU beds and critical care infrastructure, are all needed. Building this infrastructure will not only ensure good and proper response to such crises but also ensure better outcomes in routine healthcare including the fight against NCDs. The added bonus would be more and better job opportunities for the youth.
We are always comfortable with old problems rather than new solutions. The Covid pandemic has shattered the status quo. It has thrust a new, ever-changing world upon us. In this new world it has brought home to us some vital issues:
- No one can be left behind, even if a small group is left unprotected, the pandemic can and will resurge.
- It affects all; rich and poor, urban and rural, haves and have-nots equally.
- It requires tackling and response at the local, national and global level.
- The challenges of positive health, hunger and poverty alleviation, productive work, quality education, climate change and environment cannot be dealt with in isolation or by a piecemeal approach. The world has to unite and work in cooperation and a sense of partnership to deal with these issues.
As I write this article, there are rays of hope. At least six countries have given approval for emergency use of the mRNA vaccine. And some more vaccines are in the final stages of approval for emergency use. Many more vaccines will become available in the coming months. That is good news.
As hope springs anew with the availability of effective vaccines, a new door of opportunity opens before us in Rotary to play our part.
We all owe a big thanks to Edward Jenner who in 1796 introduced the concept of vaccination against smallpox. The smallpox vaccine travelling from London through Vienna, Baghdad, Basra, finally reached Bombay in 1802. And this journey culminated with the eradication of smallpox nearly two centuries later in 1980 when the world was declared smallpox-free by WHO.
The Spanish flu pandemic started in 1918 and the vaccine became available for use 27 years later in 1945. The polio vaccine took over 10 years to be approved for use. For the Covid pandemic, vaccines are available in less than a year’s time. This is Hope in Action. We are bruised but not beaten. There is now light at the end of the tunnel.
The road ahead will be long and arduous. Vaccinating over seven billion people worldwide is a herculean task, one which will require partnerships and close working relationships between all world governments, WHO, other UN organisations and civil society including service organisations like Rotary, the Gates Foundation and every NGO — small and big. The aim should be equitable vaccination of all populations irrespective of socioeconomic status, caste, creed and religion. Another challenge will be to overcome the misinformation and resistance to vaccination.
The Rotary International Board has just approved Rotary’s involvement in the Covid-19 response. The board encourages Rotary clubs and Rotarians to look at and try to meet local needs vis-a-vis vaccination, apart from an advocacy role. As president nominee Jennifer Jones points out, there is synergy between the Covid vaccination initiative and polio immunisation. This is like the ‘plus’ in PolioPlus. Rotarians have proved with polio that if we dare to dream and work with an action plan to follow that dream, we can create miracles.
Rotary is both hope and opportunity. This is our time and this is our moment. As hope springs anew with the availability of effective vaccines, a new door of opportunity opens before us in Rotary to play our part. Let’s grasp it. Together we can, and we will once again make this the best of times, the season of light and the spring of hope.
The writer is a serving Rotary International Director.