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It’s high spring in Britain as we move towards the end of lockdown. But in India it’s the hot season – 37 degrees in Delhi yesterday – and people are living through the fullest horror of the Covid nightmare.
It’s becoming impossible to ignore the gulf between what’s happening with Covid in the developed world and the developing world. According to the World Health Organisation eighty seven percent of vaccinations have been in wealthy countries, and in the UK we naturally feeling relieved, even as we count the cost. But in sub-Saharan Africa the vaccination rate is under one percent.
One argument tells us that’s dangerous because the virus knows no borders and no one’s safe till everyone’s safe. Then there’s the increasingly urgent moral argument that the gulf amounts to ‘vaccine apartheid’.
I think moral issues become more real for us when they touch our lives. Around 700 members of my Buddhist Order are from Indian Dalit communities – the so-called ‘Untouchables’ – who’ve converted to Buddhism. We’re hearing regularly of Order members who’ve died following a Covid diagnosis – 13 in the last month – and many more deaths in the wider community.
My friend Amoghabhadra was running youth projects in the Nagpur slums when he met Buddhists doing the same. Inspired by their idealism and commitment, he became a Buddhist and eventually joined my Order. A kind man with great determination, I stayed with him near Delhi and toured Dalit localities on the back of a motorbike. One day, my driver skidded and I bumped along the road. As Amoghabhadra patched me up, our connection was sealed.
Over the years I heard of his struggles, his Buddhist practice and his social work projects. In the last year he worked on coronavirus relief – helping people who’d lost their jobs during lockdown and working in crowded slums where social distancing was all but impossible.
A fortnight ago Amoghabhadra died, aged fifty one, having contracted Covid-19.
To respond to what’s happening in India we need to feel it. We need to imagine the heat, the makeshift housing, the chaotic hospitals, the patients dying for lack of oxygen, the burning bodies and just how frightening it must all feel. People in India don’t know if this is the worst or if the worst is just beginning. And neither do we.
We need to respond to what’s happening. We’ll find a way to do that if we feel it strongly and imagine it deeply.
Listen to this Thought for the Day on the BBC site
Listen on Vishvapani’s Blog (if outside the UK)