Gandhi would have seen pandemic as an opportunity for improvement
October in India always brings thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi. Oct. 2 was the end of the year marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. This year, humanity looks back at Gandhi’s life and messages from a profoundly altered position: A global pandemic, the disintegration of social lives, looming economic recession, spiraling anxieties about the future, and diminished confidence in ourselves and our leaders. In such a world, Gandhi, always a man for a crisis, can offer a hand of comradeship, a voice of solace and a plan of action.
Indeed, one suspects that Gandhi might not have been overly fazed by the coronavirus pandemic and its matrix of interlocking crises. If anything, he would have seen an opportunity in the new social and economic disruptions generated by the coronavirus — a chance to ask some searching questions about who we are, what we owe others, and whether, when things are “normal” again, we can really return to the old ways. For Gandhi, the pandemic would have been an ideal opportunity for civilization to hit the reset button. Imagine he was still with us today. What might he have said and done from March 2020 onwards?
Let us get the disruptive, possibly criminal, behavior out of the way first. Gandhi would certainly have broken social distancing rules and lockdown orders by traveling widely and meeting scores of people (although he would have worn a mask). He could never bear to stay away from suffering or to wall himself inside a safe zone, as some of the world’s rich have done. The shutting down of public transport would not have bothered him: He would just have walked. He would have toured India, trying to meet the poor and share their troubles (one imagines him walking with the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who left urban India for their homes in distant villages).
Gandhi spent his 20s and 30s in South Africa working not just as a barrister, but also a journalist, editor, social worker and community organizer. He would have deployed all these skills in dealing with the humanitarian crisis caused by the pandemic. Although a stern critic of industrialization and the cult of technology, he was happy to embrace new innovations when he felt they could help the cause of community and moral progress. He might have started an Instagram account, daily posting a picture of someone he had met on his travels — a vegetable vendor, a textile worker, a hospital nurse — and detailing their pandemic experience using their own words.
Gandhi would, then, have used the pandemic to address fraying social bonds and create new solidarities, building on the new awareness of our interdependence generated by the virus.
Next, Gandhi would have certainly used the consumption shock caused by the pandemic to ask some searching questions about the nature of our material life and consumption of resources. On his travels, he would meet scores of rich and middle-class people who would lament their stripped-down existence: No visits to malls, restaurants and cinemas, no visits from service staff or domestic help, all plans for the future disrupted. Total disaster.
Gandhi might have reminded them, very gently, that our generation is, in material terms, the most privileged that has ever walked this planet — and yet also the most destructive, endorsing norms, goals and practices that are consuming the Earth’s natural resources in a way that cannot be sustained beyond a few more decades (and we know this). Why not use the pandemic to think about the nature of material desire itself, especially the complicated relationship between needs (which are finite) and wants (which can be expanded endlessly)?
Where the definition of well-being, he would have said, consists in having ever more things, one ceases to become an agent and instead becomes a subject, perhaps even a slave. A little voluntary austerity is good for the soul, not only making a virtue of a necessity, but making us value a little more the things we already possess (for most of us, this is more than any of our ancestors would ever have possessed).
Moreover, sometimes a new awareness of how little we really need to be happy can create the desire not to acquire, but to give. Beyond a certain inflection point of material well-being, Gandhi would have said to some of us, the only gaining of happiness lies in giving. Gandhi would have used the huge, often arbitrary, devastation of material security in the pandemic to highlight the unjustifiable levels of poverty, hunger and deprivation of our pre-pandemic “normal” and to suggest that we stop telling ourselves that the poor deserve to be so.
Sometimes a new awareness of how little we really need to be happy can create the desire not to acquire, but to give.
To those economists criticizing governments for racking up mountains of debt to fund economic relief, Gandhi would have pointed out that humanity as a whole has been blithely borrowing against the future for a very long time. Our life on Earth, he often said, is in truth more like trusteeship than ownership: We live not just for ourselves and our loved ones, but for others we do not know and for generations we shall never see. The only economics that is really sensible in such a context is what the Gandhian economist J.C. Kumarappa called “the economics of permanence” — one that recognizes limits set by nature to our material existence and is willing to measure progress not just by economic growth but by the quality of its sustainability.
So, for Gandhi, the pandemic would have presented an opportunity to spread the contagion of a desire for a more just world order, for both society and the self. The pandemic has shut out large swaths of the world for most of us, whether rich or poor. But, as Gandhi (who knew something comparable during the many stints he served in jail) might have said, when the external world is denied to us, we are left to focus, without distractions, on the world within us. There is much useful work that can be done there: Sustainable work that will be of use to us for the rest of our lives.
- Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and writer based in New Delhi. His work also appears in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Twitter: @Hashestweets