Because it takes a virus to teach us compassion

Updated: 29 March, 2020 10:11 IST | Dr Mazda Turel | Mumbai

Disease, death and shortage is bringing us closer to humaneness. But will kindness be trending when the storm has blown over?

This picture has been used for representation purpose only
This picture has been used for representation purpose only

Dr Payal TadviI could feel the beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. My body felt hot, the face flushed. My shirt was flapping against my sweating back. The shortness of my breath catapulted into a catatonic cough. These weren't symptoms of the deadly flu; just me having climbed 14 floors of the hospital, thanks to an out-of-service elevator. The extreme air-conditioning inside my office undid the deteriorated situation, restoring me back to "normalcy"—a term we are unfamiliar with in these
ravaging times.

When today's millennials will be parents to tomorrow's coronials, the phrase "going viral" is likely to have acquired a quality of catharsis. Once we make it through this apocalypse (and if the fast approaching next one doesn't wipe us out), we will be able to tell the as-yet-unborn generation stories of how we survived a pandemic in the times of "social media"—a term that should, hopefully, be obsolete and replaced by something more ludicrous. Social media has ensured that even your own family is a potential threat to your survival. A sneeze is scorned at, a cough condemned, and if you have the additional fever, you are ostracised. While we say that we are in this together, in reality, we are all in it alone.

Serious illness is a great leveller. It lends itself to deliberate introspection. For me, a simple flu does that, but 'flu' is a bad word today. However, in medicine there is nothing like simple. There is no simple operation, simple patient, or simple treatment. If you look at it intently, simple is really hard. Something as simple as washing your hands for 20 seconds has become one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Something that should come so naturally to a highly evolved society
requires reminders on radio, hoardings atop flyovers, television ads, and memes.

When someone in the family is diagnosed with an illness that could be fatal, the dynamics change. Brothers who were embroiled in property disputes reconcile, couples ready to file for divorce patch up, and the in-laws quickly oblige. Suddenly, you begin to think of your parents as important. I have seen countless such scenarios in my practice: when there is a jolt to someone's survival, everyone dramatically decides to be nice to one another. What we see almost daily at the personal level is now manifesting globally. Why do we need our complacency to be concussed for us to act graciously, kindly and responsibly?

Unfortunately, nature will continue to do what it is supposed to. It is up to us to pull up our socks. All the quotes and touching videos on the Internet want us to believe that we will be a better world once this is over. "Will kindness be in fashion once again?" a friend asked naively. "I would love to think so," I said, "and for the sake of humanity, I hope so, but honestly I don't think so."

Mother Earth, while we feel, had unleashed its wrath on us for ill-treating her, has also shown us within a matter of days how forgiving she can be when treated gently. The birds are chirping, the dolphins are pouting and the air is fresh. Unfortunately again, once this is all over, we will go back to being the people we were. Go back to violence in the name of religion, increasing our carbon footprint, abusing the air, and violating the waters. After analysing how pandemics not only kill people but compassion too, David Brooks, in a fine piece of writing, urges us with this: "it wouldn't be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one."

In fact, the analogy has a glaring similarity to the practice of medicine. Sometimes, the best thing to do in life is to stay put. In neurosurgery, after a procedure where a patient is not making the expected recovery, we are often pushed for action. Relatives demand that we do something extraordinary. They want to see activity and enterprise, they insist on movement. Even after you have done what you think is more than enough, it is difficult to do nothing. To hold on. To wait and watch—four words that relatives will not fathom. There is restlessness and yearning. They lose trust in you. Mounting bills of intensive care create fissures. It requires courage and conviction to allow nature to do the healing.

Great love, mammoth wars, and fatal diseases need the same treatment—aggressive on one front and restrained on the other. For all three, something that Lenin said comes to mind: There are decades where nothing happens, and then there are weeks where decades happen.

Let's give this the time it needs to blow over, and while it does, let's stay safe, and not sorry. And when it's finally over, according to Vir Das, and rightly so—the world's biggest statue should be to the ventilator.

The writer is practicing neurosurgeon at Wockhardt Hospitals and Honorary Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Grant Medical College and Sir JJ Group of Hospitals. You can reach him at mazda.turel@mid-day.com

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First Published: 29 March, 2020 09:54 IST

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