Wuhan deadly Virus and Wuhan informal Spirit – Is there Missing Link?

By Rajendra Shende, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, Former Director UNEP, Alumnus of IIT Bombay.

This article appeared in Social Asia Monitor ( SAM) & Media India Group on 5th Feb 2020 as :

Now that evacuation of Indian students and citizens from Wuhan city and the surrounding area in China has been nearly achieved and that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has also helped neighboring countries like the Maldives to get their citizens back in wake of the Coronavirus, let us go back 82 years, to 1938.

But before that journey into a past and unusual story that unfolded that time at around the same place, it would be appropriate to look at the present global threat in more detail. Global Health Emergency declared by World Health Organisation ( WHO) on 30th January in a press conference the coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan in December 2019, first detected by WHO is now infecting more people with faster speed and wider spread than any other virus outbreaks in the recent years. The number of deaths is climbing every day.

It is the least expected event at the beginning of the new year and the new decade. Many foretelling elites through TV interviews and well-studied articles have predicted the start of 2020 with economic gloom but full of excitement of technological disruptions including likes of Artificial Intelligence, space exploration, driverless cars and even the emergence of technologies that are not yet known to humanity. Many also predicted that though global warming is looming large over our planet and engulfing our lives, the coming decade will start with technological solutions like electric vehicles, carbon sinks and bending solar energy from space planet to decarbonize the world.

None among these experts on the future of mankind, nor the experienced crystal-ball gazers predicted the outbreak of the Coronavirus, baptized as 2019-nCov by WHO. No one knows precisely where it came from and what are the precise symptoms, though it is declared that the symptoms resemble that of the common cold. This uncommon version of the common virus is responsible for the exceptional declaration of the ‘Global Emergency’ by WHO.

Now the experts on infectious diseases are telling us that, like numerous satellites, the Corona Virus is circling the planet, causing a pandemic. Uncertainty about the pandemic is so certain that except for the fact that the new pathogen transmits between the humans’ nothing is known about it. It is like flue (influenza) that transmits faster than SARS or MERS.

Science fictions tell the stories that the last creatures that would remain on our planet after the sixth extinction would be the virus and the insects who would feed on each other in a sustainable manner ever! As we know many science fictions like flying in the sky and journey to the moon have already come true.

In such an emergency, the right thing to do is, of course, to escape from the battle-field, run away from the enemy, block the approach of the enemy and keep those who are affected by the enemy far away. Even suspicious cases need to be isolated. The precautions against the uncommon enemy are common: wash hands, wear the masks and hold the cloth when you cough or a sneeze.

For some, all these actions are good, but much more is needed than just running away and evacuation. That exactly is the story of 1938.

It is the story that in fact, follows the principle and doctrine of the Ministry of External Affairs of India, so well-practiced by former Minister Padmavibhushan late Sushma Swaraj from 2014. That doctrine is “Neighbourhood-First”. It means that, under foreign policy priorities, India needs to help the neighbors first. Rightly so, Air India planes arranged by the Government of India also evacuated the students from the Maldives stuck up in Wuhan.

Late Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis in 1938, however, followed that exact practice for the neighbor across Himalaya, by choosing a totally different and disruptive path.

That was the time when China was in war with Japan on China’s land. The Japanese invasion of China had suppressed the Chinese people who were struggling for freedom from the Japanese Army. Chinese General sent a message to Jawaharlal Nehru and requested medical aid and sending doctors to China. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the President of the then Indian National Congress, held the press conference on 30 June 1938 and made a public appeal to the Indian people who themselves were fighting against the British Raj for their own freedom.

Dwarkanath Kotnis, at that time, was a fresh graduate from Seth G S Medical College, University of Bombay and was getting ready for the post-graduation. Just about 28 years old, he was swayed by the appeal of Netaji Bose and went to his family for permission to be part of the team of doctors that are ready to go to China to serve the injured Chinese soldiers.

That time, what India knew about China was only Chinese silk and the travels of Hsuan-Tsang, the Buddhist Pilgrim of the Seventh Century. His father, Shantaram, encouraged young Dwarkanath to venture out, though his mother was depressed because Dwarkanath was going far beyond Himalaya and worse, in a battlefield, a war zone.

Probably, Dr. Kotnis started deploying the ‘Neighbourhood-First’ policy at the individual level much ahead of the modern times and embarked on the journey to China along with four other doctors. Interestingly, there were no Indian citizens to be evacuated from the battlefield in China!

Now comes the striking coincidence. That team of doctors from India, that itself was struggling for the freedom, arrived in China that was struggling for freedom too, to help Chinese soldiers. And they arrived in the port near Wuhan and went to the battlefield. They were warmly welcomed by Mao Zedong, who later became supreme leader – Chairman Mao of China. India was the first Asian country from where the real help came for China. Today, interestingly, India is the first Asian country to evacuate Indian citizens from China. Nothing wrong one can see in both approaches. 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 traveling to north China from Hebei province. Against heavy odds of acute shortage of medicines, he is known to have performed operations continuously for 72 hours. He treated more than 800 wounded soldiers during the battle. He was eventually appointed as the Director of the Dr. Bethune International Peace Hospital named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune who was also part of the team from abroad.

The remaining four doctors from the Indian medical team returned home safely. Dr. Kotnis married a Chinese nurse, Guo Qinglan. They first met at the inauguration of Dr. Norman Bethune’s tomb. Their son they named Yinhua ( IndiaChina).

The stressful job of the battlefield as a leading doctor, however, was a blow to young Kotnis. He died in 1942, leaving behind his widow and the baby son. But most importantly he left behind a message for all of us facing the new Corona Virus.

Mao Zedong mourned Kotnis death 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 exactly is missing today dealing with the new Corona Virus.

Keeping the complexity of India-China relations in mind, PM Modi in Xi’an, less than 800 km from Wuhan, in 2016 had stated: “ We have a historic responsibility to turn our relationship into a source of strength for each other and source of good for the world.”. Later in

2018, the informal summit took place in the city of Wuhan which is the epicentre of Coronavirus today. The key outcome document of the Wuhan summit 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 PM Modi should have offered medical aid, joint research on the virus, speedy joint action for dealing with the uncommon and new viruses. Air India plane that went to evacuate the Indian citizens, should also have carried the medical aid and PM Modi’s message to President Xi to fulfill our historic responsibility. Did we miss the Wuhan spirit in the wake of Wuhan virus?


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