On January 30, WHO declared a coronavirus outbreak and global health emergency that had begun in Wuhan a month earlier. It was found that Coronavirus was infecting more people and spreading at a faster pace than any other virus outbreaks in recent years. When the emergency alarms went off, India stepped forward to protect its people and evacuated Indian students and citizens from Wuhan city and other areas of China. Since India has and wholeheartedly follows the Neighbourhood First Policy, The Air India planes that evacuated Indians from Wuhan should also have carried medical supplies and other equipment and personnel that could help China in overcoming this crisis.
This wouldn’t be the first time India offered a helping hand towards China even though both the countries have their own differences towards each other. In 1938, before independence, even before the Neighbourhood First Policy had put into practice, India had helped to treat injured Chinese soldiers during their battle with the Japanese invaders. During those times Chinese leadership sent an urgent message to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and requested medical aid to help the injured soldiers. Immediately, the Indian team responded under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.
Soon Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis, a fresh graduate from Seth G S Medical College, University of Bombay, and his fellow doctors were sent to China. Coincidently, the doctors arrived in China at a port near Wuhan where they were warmly welcomed by Chinese general Mao Zedong. The Indian Doctors went to the battlefield straight away so they can help the wounded soldiers and save their lives.
Dr. Kotnis, 28 years old then, joined Mao’s Eighth Route Army and treated wounded soldiers from Hebei province who were working in mobile clinics traveling to northern China. Despite the acute shortage of medicines, Dr. Kotnis and his team continuously performed 72 hours of operations. In the battle, Kotnis alone treated over 800 wounded soldiers. Once their mission was accomplished, four of the doctors returned but Dr. Kotnis stayed, got married to a Chinese nurse and became the director of Dr. Bethune International Peace Hospital named after the famous Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune who was also part of a medical team from abroad. Sadly Dr. Kotnis died in 1942, due to the extreme stress and hard work he put for treating the soldiers.
Dr. Kotnis and his team’s work had given birth to the Neighbourhood First doctrine that India would continue to follow almost 100 years later. But India misses the 1932 spirit because the world struggles today to deal with the coronavirus. Moreover, just like other nations such as the United States, France, and the United Kingdom it has pulled out its citizens and shut the door on the Chinese in an attempt to protect themselves from the epidemic.
It would have been apt and indeed desirable, had Modi offered immediate medical assistance as well as an offer to conduct joint research with Chinese scientists on coronavirus and development of a joint strategy to deal with the latest pandemic. That would have been the best homage to not only Dr. Kotnis and the Indian spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam as well as the Indian policy of Neighbourhood First.