Coronavirus and the Wuhan spirit: India could have done more than just evacuation

India, in 1938, was the first Asian country from where real help came for China. Today, India is the first Asian country to evacuate its citizens from China, writes Rajendra Shende for South Asia Monitor

Rajendra Shende Feb 05, 2020
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Now that Indian students and citizens have mostly been evacuated from Wuhan in China and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has helped neighbouring countries like the Maldives get their citizens back in the wake of the Coronavirus, let us go back 82 years, to 1938.

Before that, it would be appropriate to look at the present global threat in more detail. The World Health Organisation (WHO) on January 30 declared a 'global health emergency' and said the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan in December 2019, and first detected by the WHO, is now  infecting  more people, faster, than any other virus outbreak in recent years.

This was least expected at the beginning of the new decade. People predicted the start of 2020 with economic gloom but full of excitement for technological innovative disruptions like Artificial Intelligence, space exploration, driverless cars and technologies yet unknown to humanity. Many also predicted that though global warming is looming over our planet and engulfing lives, the coming decade will start with technological solutions like electric vehicles, carbon sinks and bending solar energy from space to decarbonise the world.

Nobody predicted the outbreak of the Coronavirus, baptized as 2019-nCov by WHO. No one knows precisely where it came from and what are its precise symptoms, though the symptoms resemble that of the common cold. Experts are telling us that, like satellites, the Coronavirus is circling the planet, causing a pandemic about which there is no certain knowledge, except that the new pathogen can transmit between humans. It is like influenza (flu) that transmits faster than SARS or MERS. In such an emergency, the right thing to do is to escape from the battlefield, block the enemy’s approach and keep those who have been affected far away. Even suspicious cases need to be isolated. Precautions against the uncommon enemy are common: wash hands, wear masks and use handkerchiefs when you cough or sneeze.

However, much more is needed than just running away and evacuation. That exactly is the story of 1938. It is the story that follows the principle and doctrine of the MEA, “Neighbourhood First,” which means that, under foreign policy priorities, India will help the neighbours first. Air India planes, arranged by Government of India, also evacuated students from the Maldives who were stuck in Wuhan.

Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis in 1938 followed that exact practice for the neighbour across the Himalayas, by choosing a different and difficult path. That was when China was at war with Japan in China. The Japanese invasion of China had suppressed the Chinese who were struggling for their freedom. A Chinese general sent a message to Jawaharlal Nehru, requesting medical aid and doctors for China. Subhash Chandra Bose, then president of the Indian National Congress, made a public appeal to the Indian people, who were themselves fighting against the British Raj for their own freedom.

Kotnis was then a fresh graduate from Seth G S Medical College getting ready for his post-graduation. Swayed by Bose’s appeal, he sought permission to be part of the team of doctors to go to China to serve the injured Chinese soldiers.

At that time, little was known about China beyond Chinese silk and the travels of Hsuan-Tsang, the  Buddhist pilgrim of the 7th century. Kotnis’ father, Shantaram,  encouraged young Dwarkanath to go, even though it was beyond the Himalayas, to a war zone. Probably, Dr Kotnis started the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy at the individual level much ahead of modern times and embarked on the journey to China, along with four other doctors.

Now comes the striking coincidence. That team of doctors from India arrived in China, that was also struggling for freedom, to help Chinese soldiers. And they arrived at a port near Wuhan and went to the battlefield where they were warmly welcomed by Mao Zedong, who later became the supreme leader. India was the first Asian country from where real help came for China. Today, India is the first Asian country to evacuate its citizens from China. Nothing wrong, but surely, are we not missing something here?

The 28-year-old Doctor Kotnis  joined Mao’s Eighth Route Army and treated wounded soldiers working in mobile clinics travelling to north China from Hebei province. Against heavy odds, of acute shortage of medicines, he performed his medical duties and treated more than 800 wounded soldiers during the battle. The other four Indian doctors from the medical team returned home safely. Kotnis stayed and married a Chinese nurse, Guo Qinglan, and named their son Yinhua ( India-China). But Kotnis died in 1942, leaving his widow and baby son. But most importantly he left behind a message for us all, facing the new Coronavirus.

Mao Zedong mourned Kotnis'eath by observing that "The army has lost a helping hand, the nation has lost a friend. Let us always bear in mind his internationalist spirit." That international spirit is what is missing today in dealing with the Coronavirus.

Keeping the complexity of India-China relations in mind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in 2016, said in Xi’an, less than 800 km from Wuhan, “We have a historic responsibility to turn our relationship into a source of strength for each other and source of good for the world.” At the informal summit in 2018 in Wuhan, the epicentre of Coronavirus today, the key outcome document highlighted that ‘India and China, given their vast developmental experiences and national capacities, should join hands to take lead in offering innovative and sustainable solutions to challenges faced by humankind in the 21st century.”

What we missed specifically is that Modi should have offered medical aid, joint research on the virus and speedy joint action for dealing with the uncommon and new virus. The Air India plane that went to evacuate Indian citizens should have carried medical aid and Modi’s message to President Xi Jinping to fulfil our historic responsibility. Did we miss the Wuhan spirit in the wake of the Wuhan virus?

(The writer is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and Former Director UNEP, He can be contacted at shende.rajendra@gmail.com)