Busboys and Poets is a lovely Washington DC bookstore-cum-restaurant. The name is a homage to the Black American poet and activist, Langston Hughes, who earned a living as a busboy, a waiter’s assistant. On 22 February, I was having lunch there alone, reading a book. The people on the table next to me kept looking at the book. They stopped near me as they were leaving and said, “We don’t think it is very serious, why are you reading that book?". They seemed curiously aggressive.

The book was William McNeill’s classic of epidemiological history, Plagues And Peoples, perhaps one of the first to explore the deep influence of diseases on the course of humanity, from the early humans and the Neolithic era to the rise of civilizations and the modern times. I was not inclined to break my reverie, so I said, “I am sorry, I won’t read it’, and shut it. They went away.

That evening at Dulles Airport, as I was leaving for Bangalore, the book came out from the bag with the laptop at the security X-Ray machine. The security agent at the collection point on the other side, looked at the book and said, “that’s the right book to read, man; it’s coming.".

On 3 March, I was in a school in the village of Malpura, near Sitarganj in Udham Singh Nagar district, Uttarakhand. Children from 3 schools had gathered there and set up a “Baal Mela", a children’s fair, with exhibits that they had made themselves. It was not a big ground, there were about 200 people. I heard something like a chant from the distant corner, where a bunch of kids had gathered. As I walked across and nearer to them, the words became clearer, “Coronavirus! Coronavirus! Coronavirus!..."

They were having fun with the chant and prancing around. “What’s this chant?", I asked, “who is this coronavirus?". “Bhayankar bimari hai," it is a very dangerous disease, they replied. “So, what will you do?", I asked. “We must wash our hands," they replied and laughed. Through that week I travelled from the east to the west of the district, as I have done every year for many years now. In school after school, I discovered that “coronavirus" was well-known, but not feared.

On 8 March, I returned to Bangalore. In two days, we were considering closing our university, which we did two days before the government advisory to shut all institutions in the city. Those extra two days gave us the opportunity for a relatively orderly closure. The next day onwards, we stopped all non-essential travel. Thereafter, our decisions on response measures had to accelerate exponentially. With over 1500 members of our team spread across over 200 small towns and villages of India, in addition to our concentration in Bangalore, we were grappling with significant operational complexity. We further have over 350 partner organizations spread across the country.

My daughter was in London. She was calm, as she always is. My parents were in Raipur, wanting to get back home to Bhopal. At their age, it was inadvisable to travel, certainly by public transport. Then India announced a virtual shutdown of its borders for flights boarding after noon GMT on 18 March. And since then, things have just escalated every day.

All of us are facing similar situations. Stranded away from those whom we care most about, with no way to help or even know. Many of us are much worse off, with livelihoods vanishing or risks multiplying due to already-fragile health, or both. We have not dealt with anything like this before, individually or collectively as a modern global society. We are probably not in the middle of it but at the beginning.

Until now, to respond as an organization, we have used some common sense principles. First, safety is paramount. Not only our safety and that of our families, but our communities. We must not become vectors of the virus in those remote locations. Second, heed all government advisories and only credible experts, ignoring the immense amount of misinformation floating around. Third, we must communicate many times more than we usually do. Every day, we have two teleconferences with over a hundred of our colleagues, who, in turn, speak to their teams every day. We also make sure to communicate clearly with our partners. Fourth, work must continue. This is very complex, and we are grappling with this. Work is important, but equally, it is an anchor for coping with this difficult time. Fifth, we must figure out a way to help others and contribute in tackling this crisis. Given the privilege of our resources and size, we must be out there, where we can contribute most. Sixth and most importantly, we must act with empathy. Each one of us is facing the same fears and confusions. We must stand together with each other.

I bought Plagues And Peoples in December last year, before the first news from Wuhan had leaked out. It was one of those strange coincidences. Let me quote the last paragraph of the book, “Ingenuity, knowledge, and organization alter but cannot cancel humanity’s vulnerability to invasion by parasitic forms of life. Infectious disease which antedated the emergence of humankind will last as long as humanity itself, and will surely remain, as it has been hitherto, one of the fundamental parameters and determinants of human history."

How profoundly this pandemic will alter the course of human history, we don’t know. But we ourselves will be altered by it. Our actions make us who we are and who we become, slowly over our lifetimes. But there are times when a brief period can shape us profoundly. This is probably such a time. We can choose who we become, with thought, courage and empathy.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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