Opinion Comment

Opinion | Make a habit of caring — a pandemic reflection

Picture used for representational purposes only. File

Picture used for representational purposes only. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Ceto came to our home after losing her human family in the second wave of COVID-19. She was our pandemic dog. And what a dog! A tall, long-limbed black Labrador, slightly deaf, with red-brown eyes, drooping jowls, and a silvery muzzle.

Ceto, it turned out, was the Greek name for a primordial sea goddess in charge of all the dangers of the ocean. In mythology, Ceto was the mother of Echidna, the Gorgons, the Nemean lion, and the Sphinx; Wikipedia said the name could also mean ‘sea monster’.

This was definitely some sort of other-worldly creature. The day we brought her home, she seated herself on the living room ‘dhurrie’ like a friendly seal, and gazed around at her new family. She was no frisky pup; she was eight years old, which is canine middle age. Our younger son, who had been lonely during the pandemic, sat down beside her. From that moment, she became his dog, and he, her person. It was as if this had been her home all her life.

Taking a toll in three waves

That month, when Ceto came to us, we were still getting over the second wave of the pandemic. The pandemic, the pandemic: I had never imagined having to use the word in my lifetime. Through its three waves, the pandemic had reached all of us in one way or the other. I had already had a severe case of COVID-19 in the first wave. I had been in hospital for 10 days, with my lungs infected, and acute fatigue for weeks thereafter. In the second wave, my mother-in-law tested positive. She was 80, and frail. We arranged for an oxygen concentrator and a video consultation. The first pulmonologist prescribed a cocktail of ivermectin, azithromycin, Favipiravir, and more; we quickly moved on to another physician from an ethical medical practice, who told us to stay with paracetamol, fluids, and regular oxygen checks. She recovered at home. In the third wave, everyone got it — my teenage sons, my husband, and probably, though he tested negative and steadfastly refused to accept that it was anything other than a terrible case of the flu, my 86-year-old father. Omicron had seemed benign, but our younger son was left with a painful, paroxysmal cough that stayed for two months.

Grief at different removes

At first, we didn’t tell the children that Ceto had lost her family to COVID-19. It was hard to talk about, even at three removes. There was already so much loss in the air. Everyone had lost someone, or someone’s someone — in the extended family; at work; among friends.

This is what the pandemic took away. Circles of relationships enclose us through life; they tell us that we are not alone in this world. Like strings of festival lights twinkling from balconies, these networks of care are the human connections, big and small, the someone’s someones, in the firmament of existence. Suddenly, without warning, bits of the strings were going dark.

We can’t be islands

And then there was the isolation. Isolation: the word sounds a bit like desolation, and contains an abyss. Its roots are in the Latin insula, meaning island. The first permanent isolation hospital for plague victims was established in the 15th century on an island near Venice.

Isolated, then islanded. Early in the pandemic, one read about the child in Europe who was buried alone, by attendants wearing PPE, because the family was not allowed to be present.

“The worst thing is not even being able to say goodbye,” said a friend from her hospital bed; she had lost a sibling in another ICU.

Across the world, millions of people have died of COVID-19. Ceto’s family was among them.

For others, there was also anxiety: an unnamed, free-floating fear of the unknown. A psychiatrist friend says that communities will be processing these feelings in different ways for some time to come.

When I was in hospital, my younger son would video-call me every evening, asking for help with his homework assignments. He did not need any help. It was his way of checking how I was. Read it, read it, he urged, and tell me if it is okay.

He was saying: Tell me you are okay.

Everyday acts of caring

But if the pandemic took away so much, it also rekindled something. It made one value the things one used to take for granted: sunlight; coffeeshops; the commute to work. It made one rediscover ways of reconnecting, through everyday acts of caring – finding a hospital bed; sending a flask of ‘kadha’; measuring a breath.

I rediscovered the Stoics during my time in hospital. Between nebulisations and IV changes, I read and read. Epictetus, the slave whose leg was broken by his master during Nero’s rule, and who was forced to leave Rome when philosophers were banished from the city. Seneca, exiled to Corsica. Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor.

In difficult times, says Epictetus, one must do one’s part and then let go without regret. “Very well, what further concern have I? For my part has been fulfilled. The business belongs to someone else, that is, the helmsman.”

According to Seneca, one must be ready at any time: “Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.”

It is Marcus Aurelius who speaks of how to go on: “You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.”

Transmit light.

What do dogs bring to our lives? So much: they love unconditionally; they are who they are; they care, and they ask us to care. They need ear drops, brushing, bathing, feeding, walking, picking up after them. At the end of every work day, they are at the door, joyfully, to greet us. As non-human creatures, they teach us an essential element of what it means to be human — to care, and to make a habit of caring.

Aristotle said that we become who we are by doing what we do: “Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

The habit of caring

In many ways, during the pandemic, communities rediscovered how to care, and rediscovered the meaning of community — by performing small, systematic acts of caring. Building WhatsApp groups began to organise home-cooked meals for those in isolation. College students brought their laptops to help with relief. Many recharged their old phones and devices to help less privileged students. Nurses in PPE played music in wards to help patients feel less apprehensive.

In rural areas, gram panchayats opened school buildings to shelter returning migrants from the city. They gave them pots of paint and paintbrushes, so that they could renovate the schools and earn a livelihood, even while taking shelter. In one gram panchayat, where a sculptor and his family were in quarantine, the panchayat members got him a block of wood and carving tools so that he could use his skills to create a work of art. Once he had completed it, they bought the sculpture from him. Some panchayats even passed resolutions that no one in their area would go hungry. ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists), India’s frontline community health workers, went from house to house to check on the vulnerable. Anganwadi workers, who usually care for society’s youngest children, helped to convince the hesitant to take the vaccine — even, when necessary, holding the hands of those who were fearful.

Not least of all was the role of civil society organisations and volunteers, who came forward to help those in hardship. They distributed food kits. They arranged shelter. They recharged phones to help those in need to connect with loved ones. They bought fruits and vegetables to help distressed farmers and distributed them in slums and labour shelters. They arrived at migrant shelters with laptops and dongles to help workers apply for relief. In remote areas, they delivered essential medicines to the ailing at their homes. They organised groups of volunteers to translate information into different languages. They helped find beds, ambulances, oxygen, and essential medicines. They formed networks and shared information generously. Often, they worked tirelessly through the night, and then continued into the morning.

Transmit light.

You are not alone, they said to those in need. It was extraordinary, and very moving. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

The writer is in the IAS


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Printable version | May 23, 2022 1:17:24 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/make-a-habit-of-caring-a-covid-19-pandemic-reflection/article65453109.ece