There is a frantic race to find the cure for the corona virus (another kind of arms race). Even as it seems the world is swept by the Biblical locusts, from North to South, and East to West, humanity is pinning its hope on science. The developed world which is in the vice-like grip of the virus is at the forefront of this race. In spite of being in the eye of the corona storm, the scientists are using all the resources at their disposal (and more) to win the war at the earliest. There is also news surfacing that a lab in Haifa, Israel is close to the discovery of the vaccine. One is not sure whether USA will win this race or China will spring some kind of vaccine-surprise or some Jewish scientist will break the news. But this much is certain that there is hardly anyone who looks at the rest of humanity for some medical miracle. There appears a news flash from India or Middle- East or Africa, the next day we hear the source of this news is Fake University or WhatsApp University (Like the ground-breaking invention in Pakistan a few years ago of a car running on water). But yes, almost 1.6 billion human beings are busy listening to how Ibn Sina had advised quarantine and social distancing, and how probably the word quarantine owes its origin to the Middle East. Let us ignore the cure competition and the boast about old heroes like Ibn Sina, and pause to reflect on something else.
The difference between a machine and a human being is that when you press the pause button on a machine it stops functioning, but the pause starts a human being. He begins to reflect. As we sit behind and watch the corona theatre dreadfully unfold in the world, it is time to pay homage to all those scientists and doctors who cured humanity of deadly infections in the past. If those doctors and scientists had not toiled, and toiled hard, today humanity may have gone extinct. They have set a luminous precedent that deadly infections can be curbed. They have found vaccines and cures against Diphtheria, cholera, tuberculosis, small-pox, polio and a number of other fatal microbes in the past, and sustained the hope that it can be done today and, in the future, as well. They are the north stars, the lodestars of current generation of microbiologists in their pursuit of a healing treatment. One only needs to read literature from 19th century and before, to find out how precious lives were consumed by deadly infections. I do not want to list the names of eminent people who fell into the maw of these microbes. They can be easily traced with a quick search on the internet. And my intention here is different; to pause on the lives of those human beings who rescued fellow homo sapiens with a messianic zeal, irrespective of the affiliation of those human beings. When Professor Jonas Salk introduced the anti-polio vaccine in 1955, he put an end to one of the frightening public health problems in the world.
Kashmir can be used as a microcosm to understand the kind of devastation caused by these infections. Most of the curses used in Kashmir are names of diseases which have been cured (Actually they are of three types of curses, on that some other day). Think about plague, carbuncles, small-pox, measles, chicken-pox, tuberculosis all of them took thousands of lives, and sometimes blew away entire communities. Actually, pause for a moment on the immunisation card of a baby and check the number of future diseases and infections which are eliminated from attacking the baby with the help of a few drops and vaccines from time to time. You just need to turn the pages of the book Kashmir in Sickness and Health by Dr. Gulzar Mufti or some papers of Rais Ahmad or the writings of Neve brothers (Arthur Neve died due to influenza in 1919 in Kashmir) and their niece Nora Neve, to get an idea of the kind of diseases which haunted human beings here in the not-so-distant past. Due to the eminent role of the Christian missionaries who used the modern allopathic medicine invented by scientists like Robet Koch and others, the life span increased; otherwise the lifespan of an average Kashmiri was below 30 around the turn of the 20th century. The situation was not different around the world. It is unfortunate that the frame of reference of the current Covid 19 crisis is either the 1918 flu epidemic or the Black Death in Europe. Thousands of such black deaths happened elsewhere, just that they remained unrecorded or stand outside the existing dominant medical discourse.
The luminous figures saw the production of the treatment as both an ethical commitment as well as a challenge. An ethical commitment to cure the suffering human beings. That was their way of ‘being human’ and not just biding time as human beings. And they took the challenge of raising a wall between the ongoing advance of the human race and the onslaught of the zoonotic diseases like corona. The pursuit of cure was their prayer, and the vaccine was the prayer answered; and to rephrase the British poet John Milton, ‘they also serve who only cure and rid the human race of disease.’ Whether they will enter heaven or hell is for others to waste time on, the fact is world is free of such diseases as small-pox and polio because of them. Perhaps corona disaster is a reminder to remember these medical heroes.
As laymen, and ringside spectators of the ongoing corona crisis, we can perhaps do no better than pay a tribute in our own way to these human beings who saved us from being attacked by deadly infections. How can this tribute be paid? Maybe by trying to imbibe the spirit which drove them to pursue the cure. That spirit is blind to individual identification, that spirit is universal and untainted by any narrow prejudice. Another way to pay tribute is to carry their mission forward by infusing their medical values in future generations. And finally, a long-lasting tribute will be paid if we learn to keep a respectable distance from a woman who is around 4.5 billion years old, and who is, to quote Thomas Friedman, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs correspondent, ‘quiet, relentless, vengeful, and this time exponential’; her name is Mother Earth.