LIFE STYLE
COVID-19: LESSONS FROM HISTORY
Even Socrates admitted ‘I don’t know’
- Capt GR Gopinath
Even Socrates admitted ‘I don’t know’



A journalist called me a couple of days ago seeking an interview. The central question was: Will the aviation sector survive the Coronavirus pandemic? 

That made me reflect. Do I have the answer? Do I really know how the world would pan out 3-6 months hence? 

After a couple of hours, I sent this reply: "I’ve honest misgivings about my ability to offer any insight. I mean, predicting anything on this epidemic about which so little is known, and based on that half-baked knowledge offering cure or counsel about aviation, I will be no better than quacks who are peddling cow urine as a cure for coronavirus. I will be like the modern-day godmen who hop around in helicopters, surrounded by lovely women sashaying in silk, and dispensing instant ‘nirvana’. One of them said drinking fiery hot rasam can kill the virus; another, that "You can test yourself if you have coronavirus by doing pranayam after yoga and holding your breath for 30 seconds. If you can’t, then you know you have the Covid-19. 

"I’m sorry you may think I’ve digressed from ‘aviation’, but how can aviation be looked at independently? If millions of labourers and small farmers, the very backbone of the economy, are deprived of their livelihoods and income, then can the automobile or the airline industry on top of the pyramid survive when the base collapses? Don’t you think we should postpone this interview for a while till we can make some sense of all this? I hesitate to wear the mantle of an ‘oracle’.” 

After thus declining the invitation long-windedly, my mind went back several years, to my childhood. There was a prolonged drought once and the village was under the grip of famine. Cattle were dying. Food became scarce. The poor begged for jobs. And one day, I saw a procession of villagers with sounds of drums and cymbals and pipes, and people dancing. 

As it came in front of my house, I saw my mother carry a copper pitcher of water to the centre of the dancing throng. There, in the middle, was a strange sight.
 
Instead of a deity, there were a few frogs tied to a plank and were carried by two bare-bodied youth. And my mother poured the cold water on the frogs that were wriggling under the hot sun and performed ‘aarti’ on them. 

As she came back into the house, my father, an agnostic, muttered, ‘Fools!’ I watched in amazement and asked him what it meant. With a smile, he mocked, "Just like those poor villagers, your mother also believes in the age-old superstition that if rains fail, you offer pooja and bathe the toads, then the heavens will send showers.”

We were a joint family in my early years. One day, I overheard that my granduncle’s wife was his fourth wife. I was stunned. My father, trying to hide a smirk, said, "She is actually the third wife. The first two wives died in quick succession one after the other soon after he married them. Then the number three being an unlucky number, and to break the jinx of deaths, his third marriage was performed with a live banana tree and after the symbolic ceremony, the tree was killed by cutting it in two. After that, he married his present wife.”
 
Then he chuckled mischievously, "But the banana sacrifice may not prevent him from being widowed again. He ill-treats her all the time. God only knows when she may take her own life.”

Such were the superstitions of our ancestors, but when you see our modern-day gurus and political masters and their disciples preaching rubbish, you ask, will the new demon, the invisible virus, be killed by chants and cymbals or will the pathogen be stopped by virologists and vaccine-makers? Can the scourge be conquered by prophets or men of science? Will the ‘guru’ chant a ‘mantra’ when his tooth aches or go to the dentist? We all know the answer to that because truth will ultimately out. So, at the core, it is about stopping fooling oneself. Then, you will stop fooling the public. 

Now, coming to our real crisis of life and death. There may be an answer, a glimmer of hope to conquer this crisis if we go back to what we learnt in our school days -- to the historical figure, Socrates, considered the wisest man who ever lived. He admitted unhesitatingly, explicitly that he did not know. And from that admission of ignorance, he gained indomitable courage and strength to question those who peddled falsehoods. 

Physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman said, "The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance…Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: ‘permit us to question, to doubt, to not be sure…’ This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. 

The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, and tossed out if necessary…doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar…” 

This crisis is so unprecedented that there are no lessons from history how to deal with this. It has to be fought through collaboration -- of minds and efforts -- and not by noble intentions or intuitions alone. 

So, if our political leaders simply admit that they do not know, and with humility and without losing any more time bring together the best brains of India from across the world -- scientists, epidemiologists, doctors and economists and social scientists, et al -- to find the best way forward, an answer will emerge how best to fight this unknown terror and save both lives and livelihoods. As the Rigveda says, "Let noble thoughts come to us from every side.” 
 
Capt GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan. Courtesy: deccanhearld.com
 
 
 
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