The news that India is on the verge of eradicating polio is just the type of inspiration we need more of in this age of information overload. We seem to live in a time where even the most well-intentioned of us reach a point of saturation, succumbing to the effects of boredom, and malaise as a result of the repetition of similar stories in the main stream media, no matter how important, and worthy of our attention they may be.
Today, living in Vancouver, Canada, I am so far removed from the scourge of the viral disease poliomyelitis, which reached epidemic proportions during the hundred years spanning the mid 19th to 20th century, targeting children, pregnant women and the elderly, resulting in sickness, paralysis, and death. Thanks to massive immunization campaigns, polio has been effectively eliminated in many countries, and is beating a hasty retreat in the areas that represent its last footholds, including India.
But, polio continues to linger, and this is where I believe the true test of our humanitarian mettle occurs. No doubt, there is much good going on around us, and because of us. It is a tribute to people, aid agencies, and governments everywhere that they support the global community’s fight to save lives, combating diseases that are preventable, as these same diseases continue to prey upon the poor and less fortunate in society. But, these efforts seem to have a shelf life, and are not easily sustained in both the amount of direct action, and the requisite financial investment once they fall from the headlines. How are we expected to keep our focus, even as our thoughts and minds grow numb from information fallout? Do we not have a personal responsibility to insist that our governments not lose sight of the desired end result, and continue to fund these efforts until the battle is well, and truly finished?
We respond to catastrophic natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami, or earthquakes like those in Northern Pakistan, Haiti, and New Zealand with an urgency based not only on the perceived need, but on a shared humanitarian vision. Our compassion and empathy is truly amazing, even as we are told by some that our interest, and with it our desire, will naturally ebb and recede as sure as an ocean tide. In all too many instances, this proves to be the case.
My mother was born in India, just before the end of the era known as the British Raj. It was the time of Nehru, Jinna, and Gandhi: a time of great upheaval, contrasts, and strife. Gandhi’s peaceful resistance movement grew alongside the desire for a separate Pakistan. Although independence from their British colonial master was achieved, it resulted in partition, one of the largest forced migrations in human history, and an equally large and unfortunate loss of human life due to sectarian violence, which culminated in Gandhi’s own assassination in 1948.
Despite all that went on, I cannot help but think it must have also represented the culmination of the hopes and dreams of millions people on the subcontinent. These same hopes and dreams have inspired, and continue to feed a grass-roots campaign within India to stamp out polio. I picture yellow-vested volunteers, over two million of them with their oral vaccines, wading through the currents of India’s one billion plus sea of humanity, positioned at the hubs of the gyre: on trains, in train stations, and at major urban intersections.
I also picture these same volunteer vaccinators laboriously transporting their temperature sensitive cargo in simple, but cumbersome, ice chests. They trudge or paddle to reach the seasonally exposed, richly silted islands in the middle of rivers; the temporary land that represents the hopes, dreams, and reality of some of the poorest elements of Indian society; the temporary terra firma panacea that is as tenuous as these people’s very existence.
All this is done in order to deliver polio virus vaccine one drop at a time, to one infant at a time, to millions of children. These are the same children whose lot in life differs from my own by nothing more than shear, blind luck. Nothing more than luck led to my mother’s leaving India, immigrating to Canada, and giving life to myself and my siblings in a country where inoculations for diseases like polio are routine.
My hope is that our media will continue to report on our successes, support stories that inspire, and promote our joined humanity by looking beyond the headlines. I am not suggesting we lose sight of our reality by choosing to look through only rose-coloured glasses. I am suggesting that one way we can continue to affect change for the betterment of our collective world is a more in-depth look into the lives, challenges, and yes, the successes of our not-so-perfect species. Perhaps even more importantly, it can help us sustain the necessary momentum, and urgency so that the cry of “yes we can”,will be replaced by “yes we have.”
Thank you to Stephanie Nolen, the South Asia correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, for her brilliant, inspiring, and organically urgent piece entitled “India on the front lines to eradicate polio”.