On 13th March 2020 Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik and his Cabinet provided exemplary leadership for the entire country and indeed the world by declaring COVD-19, Corona Virus Disease, as a disaster for the State under the provisions of Disaster Management Act, 2005. It was done to adequately empower public officials to combat the spread of COVID-19 which Shri Patnaik described as the biggest challenge beyond the comprehension of humanity. In doing so Odisha set a trend which was followed by the Union Government on 14th March when it declared COVD-19 as a disaster.
It is worth quoting the exact words of Shri Patnaik uttered in the State Assembly. He said, "Very few times in the history of the world have human beings as a race faced challenges beyond their comprehension. With advances in science, this phenomenon has become a rarity. However, the last 45 days has seen human beings as a race facing one of the biggest challenges of the century". The manner in which he expressed the magnitude of the disaster brought out the gravity of the problem and the severity of its spread across the world. In fact the statement of the Chief Minister in the State Assembly constituted so far the best and eloquent statement outlining the totality of the menace COVD-19 posed to every aspect of the collective life of humanity.
The pervasiveness of the threat emanating from global spread of Corona virus and its universal impact cutting across all barriers was brilliantly summed up by Shri Patnaik when he said with anguish and anxiety, “We are faced with a threat that does not discriminate between developed countries and under developed countries between democratic or non-democratic countries. Rich and poor societies all are equally vulnerable”. It reminds us of the immortal words of India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who in his famous "Tryst with Destiny Speech" had said with rare prescience, " Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments." Indeed the indivisibility of disaster caused by Corona virus and indispensability of common and unified response from the Government, civil society and people at large was underlined by Shri Patnaik when he asserted and urged by saying that “This response cannot be only at the individual, Government or sectoral level. Each one of us in Odisha has to rise to the occasion, and be responsible. In the absence of any vaccine or treatment our collective responsibility is the only hope we have, to fight this epidemic”.
He set an example of washing his hand to transmit the message to the wider society that personal hygiene and sanitation is the best antidote to protect oneself from the corona viral infection and stem its further spread. By setting an example of hand washing in public he has appealed to people through his action that a simple act of properly cleaning one's own hand would protect people from a viral infection which for the first time in human history has caused an unprecedented global public health disaster in recorded history. This tunes us to the vision of Mahatma Gandhi whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated in the country and on this occasion Shri Patnaik advocated inclusion of non-violence in the Preamble of the Constitution to pay tribute to the father of our nation. The shining example of Shri Patnaik affirming the importance of hand hygiene to arrest corona viral infection reminds us the words of Mahatma Gandhi. In the context of alarming spread of plague in third decade of twentieth century he had insightfully said, "A plague-infected man is worse than a plague-infected rat or fleas and unless you make your bodies proofs against infection you cannot abolish these epidemics. Nature has endowed us with enough capacity for the resistance of disease. It is we who, careless of her laws, have ruined that capacity. We have to regain it by healthy and hygienic ways of living and eating."
In the context of frightening spread of corona virus across the world Shri Patnaik said, “I must confess the entire world is on a learning curve about handling this disaster. This is where it is very important that the four and half crore Odias join together and help us in managing the situation. Each one of us has a responsibility to ourselves, to our families and to the communities we live in”. He then underlined the point that "The only effective measure so far has been social distancing. All of us should ruthlessly practice social distancing".
He also appealed to people not to spit on the road and stressed that those chewing pan should eschew the practice of spitting in public spaces so that infection would not spread through avoidable dirty human conduct. One can draw parallel between such appeal of Shri Patnaik in twenty first century India with the appeal of Mahatma Gandhi made on 14th July 1946 when he said " Promiscuous spitting is a bad habit..... It is all part and parcel of the incredible ignorance that exists in our land among all classes of people in regard to the elementary laws of sanitation and hygiene. It is a habit which we must give up, if we would avoid certain diseases".
In fact the Corona virus for which there is no counter in the form of vaccine or medicine is no ordinary source of certain disease. It constitutes a terrible menace to public health and human civilization. We need to maintain high standard of hygiene and healthy life style which would defeat the virus and save humanity. The trend setting decision of Shri Naveen Patnaik in declaring it as a disaster is a step in the right direction. His advocacy for hand hygiene, social distancing and dispensing dirty habit of spitting in public spaces constitute much needed preventive measures which invoke Mahatma Gandhi's vision to counter infectious diseases.
.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.