22 March 2020

Heroes of our times

Sri Lankans, like people in most countries, grow up learning about heroes and the heroic. Every age has its personalities. Some live beyond generation and century, some are forgotten. In recent times, in Sri Lanka, all the ‘national heroes’ we read about in text books or heard of in class were put in the shade by the war heroes, better known as ‘ranaviruwo.’ When conflict is in your face and people give life and limb to bury anxiety and fear it is natural for them to be seen as exceptional human beings. For a while, at least.

Time passes. Things change. Old challenges get put to bed. New ones wake up. And wake us up. And they call for heroes and heroic acts.

Who are today’s heroes? Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya put it simply in a Facebook post: ‘vathman yuddhaye ranaviruwan saukya sevakayan ve (the heroes in today’s war are the health workers).’ 

Yes. In a world where health workers are succumbing to the coronavirus ‘in the line of duty,’ our doctors, nurses, attendants and others in the health sector are working tirelessly and around the clock to battle the threat. They, more than anyone else, know the nature of the threat. They are at the front lines.

They are ‘out there’ for us and this is why, as we have been constantly reminded, we should be ‘in here,’ for their sake. There’s a role for the combatants and there are roles for non-combatants. In a war against terrorism, we have to be vigilant. In this kind of war we have to be responsible to the last letter in terms of protecting ourselves from infection and to make sure that we do nothing to endanger others.

Health workers do not have the privilege of indulging in self-preservation in the way others do. And they are not alone. The public service, much vilified, has come through. As it always has in periods of crisis. The entire military apparatus is on alert to do whatever is necessary. I am sure other sectors  are doing the needful, but primarily the healthcare system and the military are doing an amazing job.

And they are not alone. Think of the flight crews. Not too long ago, when a SriLankan Airlines flight officer was tested positive for the coronavirus, there were cries of horror, especially since he had  attended the Royal-Thomian cricket encounter. People with axes to grind pounced on the two schools. In hindsight perhaps the organizers could have postponed the match, but that’s another story. The moment it was identified that the person was attached to SriLankan Airlines, all employees and their families were shunned. A laundry company had refused to accept uniforms and taxi companies had refused to accept hires. There would have been other acts that insulted, humiliated and hurt to the core.

Let’s be generous and put it down to ignorance and insensitivity. Let us not forget, however, that it is these very same flight crews that brought down fellow Sri Lankans trapped in China in the early days of the pandemic. Incidentally, the two captains who flew the stranded students from Wuhan, China, were told to get out when they wanted to check into a hotel.

Obviously no one could predict the rate and extent of spread and that kind of evacuation is simply impractical now, and yet, these courageous men and women did go to India to bring back pilgrims just a few days ago. 

No one cheered. Few, apart from close family members and of course the beneficiaries and relevant officials would have known. They didn’t look for glory. They didn’t talk about it.  Interestingly, quite by chance I came across something I had written on the subject almost a decade ago (‘On unhappy cowards and hero-wannabes’) where I refer to a line by Umberto Eco which my late friend Errol Alphonso sent me.

‘The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else. If it had been possible he would have settled the matter otherwise, and without bloodshed. He doesn't boast of his own death or of others. But he does not repent. He suffers and keeps his mouth shut; if anything, others then exploit him, making him a myth, while he, the man worthy of esteem, was only a poor creature who reacted with dignity and courage in an event bigger than he was.’ [from ‘Travels in Hyper-reality’]

Hands clasped. Sheersha pranaama to all these heroes in these terrible times. 

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]

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