3 weeks ago when in my novel coronavirus induced panic I was talking to a friend, she laughed. Hurt, I asked why and she said it sounded like I was talking about karuna virus. If Coronavirus can lead to karuna – kindness, compassion - it can’t be that bad can it, she asked.
3 weeks later as the world scrambles to fight this tiny, jumpy virus, I understand the full import of this verbal gaffe. Yes, this coronavirus led complications can kill, but cheesy as it may sound, can our own karuna virus be an antidote to the havoc it’s causing globally?
The first time I saw the film Contagion was at a press screening days before its release in 2011. I had reviewed the film and though it had many memorable scenes, the one that stayed with me all these years, is a seemingly inconsequential one.
The character played by Kate Winslet is on a bed, shivering with the virus inside her. A man suffering next to her asks a nurse for another blanket. The nurse says they have run out of it. A feeble Kate takes off the coat covering her and tries to push it towards the man.
When I saw the film again a few weeks ago, I was in tears during this underplayed scene, realizing that it is these tiny moments of kindness, billions of them, which stacked together can pull us out of this, the most testing time for the human race in the 21st century.
Interestingly governments, even extremely capitalistic ones, seem to understand this as they take kind, socialistic steps, aware that without it the whole edifice of civilization could crumble. The US will hand out dollars directly to its citizens, and people can delay paying tax for 90 days. French President Emmanuel Macron promised 45 billion euros ($50 billion) to help small businesses and employees struggling with the coronavirus outbreak. Other countries are taking similar measures.
These bailout measures by governments will be tested in the months to come if the crisis deepens. But this is an encouraging start. The question we need to ask is: what can individuals do to help besides the now clichéd social distancing, handwashing, etc.?
Turns out quite a lot.
Just as individuals and corporations are dependent on government largesse and fiscal stimulus, so are we all dependent on the largesse of each other, monetary and otherwise. The richer folks help out the poor, the smarter folks help out everyone, doctors and nurses helps patients, strong help the weak etc.
I think the need right now is for every one of us to announce our own fiscal stimuli packages for people dependent on us. Promise your house help a bonus if she needs it, or that you’ll pay full salary to those who work for you even if they can’t show up for weeks or months because they are sick or have to take care of someone.
And if you want to do more, ask around how you can help. Right now overwhelmed governments across the world can do with all the help they can get. Ask your local politician if you can volunteer for something they are planning in the fight against COVID-19 even if you don’t agree with their ideology.
Call up the hospital, dispensary or doctor you go to, or one nearby, and ask if they have enough protective gear like masks, bodysuits, googles, etc. If they don’t, ask if you can buy them some, or something else they might need. Right now they are our frontline defenders. The nationalistic feeling for soldiers at the border that politicians try to inject into your bloodstreams, you should feel double that for your doctors and nurses. And don’t forget this gratitude even when this crisis is over.
Fund these philanthropic ventures from the money you’ll save because now you can’t go on that foreign trip or trips to the mall or expensive restaurants.
The persons you need to unleash your karuna virus the most on, are those who still don’t get the seriousness of the issue. In the last 10 days, I have been screamed at and ridiculed by quite a few people for suggesting they make some changes to their lifestyle. Ironically most of them are senior citizens. Their I-am-older-so-I-know-better stubbornness is hampering their judgment.
But I am proud that despite my urges to scream at their stupidity, I have not done so even once. I have been calm, patient and most of all - persistent, and a few of them have changed their points of view in the last few days and are hopefully taking the suggested precautions.
This karuna in me, I realize, I need to use even at other times and with all kinds of people. Be it in political debates or personal quarrels, kindness is the way to go.
The novel coronavirus is a wakeup call for the entire globe. We have managed to come this far as a civilization by helping each other walk bridges build using billions of bricks of compassion. At an inter-species level, the alleged principle may have been survival of the fittest, but inside our specie, the fittest have used karuna to take care of the weak, old, disabled, children even before we invented language to define it. The times of COVID-19 reminds us of this and urges us to realize the true meaning of Vasudeva Kutumbakam – the whole world is my family.
COVID-19 tells us that both injustice and infection anywhere, is a threat to justice and survival everywhere.
The common threat of the novel coronavirus is uniting us. We must not forget that unity when the threat is gone but instead move to a place of kindness, of compassion without discrimination. It is time to unleash the Karuna virus and infect everyone in the world with it.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)