“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Demilitarising Patriotism in The Covid Fight

Of late the country has been outraged by shameful and highly condemnable attacks, in parts of India, on the lives of doctors, nurses and medical staff treating patients of COVID19. A doctor in Tamil Nadu did not even get a dignified burial after losing his life following infection from a corona patient he was treating. In Gujarat a man who applauded in response to the prime minister's call to express solidarity with medical personnel later intimidated a doctor in his neighbourhood, asking her to keep away from her apartment just because she was working in a hospital where COVID patients are being treated.

Such ill treatment of doctors and medical workers has compounded their woes originally caused by the alarming inadequacy of personal protective equipment, N95 masks and other materials to safeguard them from the highly infectious coronavirus. In such a disheartening atmosphere, Odisha chief minister Shri Naveen Patnaik made a significant announcement on April 21 that if doctors and healthcare professionals of the public and private medical institutes in the state made the supreme sacrifice by laying down their lives while treating COVID patients, they would be hailed as martyrs and would get a state funeral with full state honours.

Such a pronouncement is the first of its kind in our country made by any leader and it boosted the spirit of doctors and health care staff in Odisha where there is not a single instance of assault on them. Even earlier the CM had released three months' advance pay to doctors and medical staff of the government deployed to treat COVID affected people.  

The CM added that the families of deceased doctors and health personnel would get an ex gratia amount of Rs. 50 lakhs each in convergence with the initiative of the Union government in this regard, and the families of those government personnel (medical and others) would continue to get full salary till the date of their retirement.  

In a video message, the chief minister warned that those who would harass, discriminate, ostracise and stigmatise doctors or healthcare professionals engaged in treating corona-infected patients would be detained under the stringent National Security Act and dealt with accordingly. He also announced that awards would be instituted to honour doctors and health personnel in recognition of their devoted service and exemplary sacrifice, to be conferred on them on national days.  

The chief minister's pronouncements should be seen in combination with his earlier demand before the Union government that protective gear, critical care equipment and masks for health personnel be provided in large quantities to deal with the growing menace.  

As a disaster of gigantic proportions spreads at an alarming pace across the globe, the Odisha government has set an example for the country and sensitised peoples across the globe to accord the highest honour to those rendering crucial health and medical services, which in too many cases claim their precious lives.  

Conventionally martyrdom is the highest honour earned by military personnel engaged in duties to defend the security and unity and integrity of our country. In the COVID ridden world and the post COVID architecture of human society, the idea of security and patriotism is being increasingly spelt out from the point of view of health and well being. This constitutes in some sense the demilitarisation of patriotism. Those doctors, nurses and hospital staff who relentlessly fight disease to the point of sacrificing their own health and lives are no less martyrs for the cause of human and health security than the martyrs who lay down their lives in defence of our country's security.  

We have in India the example of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis from Maharashtra, who went to China on the call of Jawaharlal Nehru as part of a medical mission to that country which had become a victim of Japanese invasion in 1938. Dr Kotnis tirelessly served the people of China who at that time also had to confront infectious plague disease. His services were so exemplary that he was richly admired by the Chinese people and authorities. He married a Chinese lady who was working with him as a nurse. While rendering medical services in the front line he passed away in China, and later the Chinese authorities built a statue of him which occupies pride of place among the martyrs of China and merits reverential attention from the people and powers of that country.  

V Santharam, the famous filmmaker of Bollywood made a film 'Kotnis ki Amar Kahani' immortalising the doctor's legacy of service and underscoring the significance of his martyrdom to the cause of saving human lives from disease and disaster.  

Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis belonged to the twentieth century world. Now in the twenty first century we are able to confer the status of martyrs to doctors and health care professionals laying down their lives in response to the call of duty to serve COVID patients. These shining examples underline the profound meaning of patriotism and martyrdom in the context of health and human security, which is more expansive than military security.  

In fact Mark Lawrence Schrad, associate professor of political science at Villanova University, insightfully wrote:  

"America has long equated patriotism with the armed forces. But you can't shoot a virus. Those on the frontlines against corona virus are not conscripts, mercenaries or enlisted men; they are our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, teachers, care givers… Like Wen Linag and the doctors of Wuhan, many are suddenly saddled with unfathomable tasks, compounded by an increase risk of contamination and death they are not signed up for. When all is said and done, perhaps we will recognise their sacrifices as true patriotism, saluting our doctors, and nurses, genuflecting and saying, "Thank you for your service", as we now do for military veterans. We will give them guaranteed health benefits, corporate discounts, and build statues and holidays for this new class of people who sacrifice their health and their lives for ours. Perhaps, too, we will finally start to understand patriotism more as cultivating the health of your community, rather than blowing up someone else's community. May be the demilitarisation of American patriotism and love of community will be one of the benefits to come out of this awful mess".  

The 'demiliitarisation of patriotism' should pave the way for understanding it from the perspective of health and human security. This is the need of the hour. China officially honoured doctors who died of COVID19 while treating corona infected patients as martyrs. Iran has declared it will recognise doctors and nurses who died combating the new coronavirus as martyrs like slain soldiers. Naveen Patnaik's pronouncement that doctors and health professionals laying down their lives while treating COVID patients would be honoured as martyrs with a state funeral and full state honours upholds the larger meaning of security and patriotism, beyond military dimensions.  

Jamsheed Rizwani, a Paris-based person of Indian origin, wrote in response to the CM's idea that while honouring the dead we must also do something to honour those who are alive, and recognise their contributions. He said the doctors and health care personnel treating COVID patients should be benefitted financially and socially, and their children studying in schools and colleges should get a lifelong waiver of school and education fees, and priority in employment in government service.  

The substantive content of these declarations far outweighs the symbolic clapping, ringing of bells and banging of utensils by people in response to the call of the Prime Minister of India to show their support to frontline doctors and health workers engaged in fighting the corona menace. Emulating more substantive measures will go a long way in boosting the spirit of our doctors and health care personnel in this relentless ongoing battle.  


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