The coronavirus is sweeping the world and has claimed more than 4,000 lives. India hasn’t been immune to this global pandemic and governments across the world are trying their best to control the spread of this infection for which there is no known cure. China is fighting this epidemic in the typical fashion of autocracies. Ruthless, inhumane and efficient in its systematic approach, China locked down 60 million people, shut down factories and schools, and if the claims are to be believed, has successfully contained the spread. From 2,000 new cases every day, China is reporting less than 100 in the past few days. Either the epidemic, like epidemics of the past like smallpox or cholera, is easing out naturally or the high-handed Chinese method is working.
Elsewhere, Italy, South Korea, Iran and the US are struggling to contain the spread of the virus. Italy has more than 600 deaths now. The UN has advised a series of measures to contain the spread and one of the most important steps in this fight against the epidemic is to avoid large gatherings. Catholic churches across the world are modifying their rituals or suspending the Sunday Mass. Even a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia has suspended the Umrah pilgrimage.
India, as usual, is taking the global warnings in a callous manner. Though the health ministry has given clear instructions about avoiding crowded places and airport screening is being done meticulously, the actions on the ground give conflicting signals about how serious the government is about combating the spread of the virus. Why are the state and central governments afraid to give clear instructions to suspend all religious and political gatherings, until the epidemic has blown its course or is contained?
The Kerala Government did a commendable job in containing the initial spread, but has allowed the annual gathering for Attukal Pongala. Thirty lakh or more women would gather for 10 days for the ritual boiling of sweet porridge on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram. This, when five new cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the nearby district. It needs to be noted that the ashram of Mata Amritanandamayi, the spiritual leader famous for her motherly hugs, has suspended the visits of devotees till further advice. The Iskcon temples also have shut down in various cities.
Why is the government shying away from taking sensible action that the private religious entities are taking boldly? If Saudi Arabia can suspend Umrah pilgrimage, why aren’t the learned Islamic scholars of India advising the believers to do the prayers at home, instead of the Friday gatherings? Why aren’t Indian churches suspending the Sunday Masses? Why are the governments, both state and the centre, allowing such mass gatherings? The governments are fearing political backlash if they touch religions. The fear of losing votes and the political opponents using the opportunity to paint those who argue for reason as the enemies of religions, is forcing our politicians to succumb to such irrational pressures.
It would, however, be unfair to single out only religions. In India, cricket may be the second-most followed religion after Hinduism. The BCCI has announced that it would go ahead with IPL tournaments, come corona or bubonic plague. Who cares for an epidemic when a fortune flows into the coffers of this private entity? This is a curious case of greed overcoming the fear or even survival instinct. Religious believers may perhaps be excused for their naivety about their beliefs saving them from virus.
Though humanity’s success in containing and eliminating more deadly epidemics like smallpox and plague owes to modern science than any gods or holy books, people are allowed to have their pet beliefs and selective rationality. Thanks to such mass gatherings, if the epidemic spreads, once again we will have to depend not on any divine intervention but on doctors and modern medicine. That is a price everyone might have to pay for the beliefs of some and the spinelessness of our governments.
In the case of IPL, there is no excuse for conducting a money-spinning jamboree, risking the lives of millions, for pleasing a few corporate honchos. If we don’t respect nature, nature knows how to extract it from us. Let us hope, we are spared the lesson, despite our foolhardiness. Maybe, that would be a divine miracle that we all should pray for.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series,
Vanara and Bahubali trilogy firstname.lastname@example.org