The year-long sesquicentennial birth anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) come to an end on 2nd October. Despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ (Clean India Mission), few remembered that Gandhi was as much the father of public health as he was the father of the nation. Those familiar with his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, would easily recall the two chapters on ‘The Black Plague’ in Part IV.
After the 2nd Boer War (1899 - 1902), the Bubonic plague broke out in South Africa. In the highly segregated urban clusters of Johannesburg, the Indian quarter was in a terribly insanitary and dangerous condition. The Medical Officer for Health for Johannesburg, Dr Porter, comparing it to a rabbit warren, considered it health hazard for the whole city: ‘It consists of a congeries of narrow courtyards, containing dilapidated and dirty tin huts without adequate means of lighting and ventilation, huddled on the area and constructed without any regard to sanitary considerations of any kind.’ Disregarding his own safety, Gandhi joined the fight against the deadly epidemic in 1904. The following year, when there was fear of a recurrence, Gandhi published an article on 16 January in his journal, Indian Opinion, setting out twenty-one simple rules to safeguard public health. Several of these, are still applicable to our present COVID-19 pandemic:
(1) No one should think that the government will harass the patient after removing him to the hospital.
(2) The government should be immediately informed in case of a sudden attack of fever or asthma.
(3) A doctor should be immediately consulted.
(4) Everyone should stay where he is without becoming panicky.
(5) Those who might have come in contact with a plague patient should not try to conceal the fact but should come forward to have their clothes etc, disinfected. … (8) One should keep one’s house scrupulously clean. …
(11) The clothes worn by day as well as those used during the night should be kept clean.
(15) Lavatories and urinals should be kept clean.
(16) The floors and other parts of the house should be washed clean with disinfecting fluid mixed in hot water.
(17) No article from an infected place should be used elsewhere.
(18) More than two persons should not sleep in a room of normal proportions.’
Thus, there is little doubt that Gandhi should be hailed as the father of public health and preventive medicine not only in India, but South Africa too. Emphasising the inextricable tie between healthy citizens and a great nation, he did more than any other human being in the twentieth century to make Indians aware of life-saving issues such as hygiene, sanitation, diet, exercise, in addition to clean air and water, as the basis of life-long good health.
Gandhi established the biosociology and biopolitics of svaraj, or self-rule, as much on a healthy and upright citizenry as on constitutional rights and political institutions. As Joseph Alter observes in Gandhi's Body Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism, Gandhi combined and coalesced in his life and thought biology, public health, national politics, international regeneration in an unprecedented way. He mobilised these against the violence of empire and the empire of violence. Gandhi’s first book on health and healing was based on a series of lectures originally published in Indian Opinion. In 1913 they were collected under the title General Knowledge About Health. Originally written in Gujarati, this collection was translated into Hindi, as also in other Indian and European languages. The English title was Guide to Health. During the Quit India movement in 1942, when he was imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace (Yervada Jail), he wrote another book in Gujarati, Key to Health, translated into English by his own associate, medical doctor, Sushila Nayyar, and published posthumously as Key to Health in 1948.
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The foundational principle of Gandhi’s idea of health was, however, not medical but spiritual. ‘The body can be of real service only when we realise it to be a temple of God and make use of it for God's worship,’ he said in Guide to Health and ‘perfect health can be attained only by living in obedience to the laws of God, and defying the power of Satan.’ Good character, virtuous conduct grounded in truth, would alone ensure a healthy body. Much as times have changed, the present pandemic calls into question modern bio-medicine’s practice of divorcing health from human conduct, both individual and collective. After all, the deadliest viruses that afflict humanity are zoonotic, jumping from animals to humans, largely because of our wanton destruction of natural habitats. Gandhi, once again, beckons to us with the moral imperative that only a fearless and unflinching pursuit of the ideals of truth and righteousness can be the basis of true health and well-being.