Imagining Gandhi in times of covid


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AS the daily toll of numbers of Covid-19 cases rise in India and around the world, one wonders what Mahatma Gandhi’s response would have been. Gandhi felt political work was not sufficient and he was driven to a ‘spirit of service’ as a young man in South Africa. His success in the practice of law notwithstanding, Gandhi ‘longed for some humanitarian work of a permanent nature.’1 As we shall see, Gandhi’s nursing skills stood him in good stead when he volunteered his services to the Empire in times of war or served the community in times of disease, while his passion for cleanliness became one of the pillars of satyagraha (truth force).

To fulfil his longing in South Africa, Gandhi took up work as a compounder in the dispensary attached to the charitable clinic run by Dr Booth. Gandhi spent a couple of hours away from his legal practice on a daily basis talking to patients, primarily indentured Indians, and learning of their difficulties. Having ascertained the patients’ complaints, he would inform the doctor and dispense the medicines. This work stood Gandhi in good stead when he later volunteered during the Boer War.

Perhaps attending upon his father in his final illness, together with his innate compassion, fuelled Gandhi’s yearning for public service in nursing. Even before volunteering for Dr Booth, Gandhi had fed a leper who came to his door, given him shelter and dressed his wounds before sending him on to the Government Hospital.2

Two of Gandhi’s sons were born in South Africa. Despite resolving to have the best medical service for his wife Kasturba’s delivery, the problem of getting a trained Indian nurse was an issue. The fear of being ‘left in the lurch’ at a critical moment had led Gandhi to study Dr Thribuvandas’s Ma-ne-Shekhaman (Advice to a Mother) and nursed both his children accordingly, tempered by his other experiences. The nurse was only for Kasturba; Gandhi himself took care of the babies. The last child had to be delivered by Gandhi due to the unavailability of a doctor and midwife, and he did so without being nervous.3

When he returned from South Africa and saw his sister Raliat in Mumbai, her husband was seriously ill. Gandhi took them to Rajkot himself, in order to nurse his brother-in-law. Despite the patient’s demise, Gandhi took consolation in having had the opportunity to nurse him in his final days.4

After he established Tolstoy Farm in 1910, he coaxed a 70-year old client, Lutavasinh, to give up smoking, put him on a special diet, and cured him of asthma in a month.5 At this time he also cured the stationmaster’s son of typhoid with a particular diet and cold mud poultices on the child’s abdomen.6


In late 1904, when Kasturba arrived to join Gandhi in South Africa with their three younger sons, eight-year old Ramdas disembarked with his arm in a sling. Contrary to the ship’s doctor’s advice to have the wound dressed by a qualified doctor, Gandhi decided to treat the injury himself with his son’s permission. Daily for a month, Gandhi treated the boy with ‘clean earth poultices’ until he was healed.

Once Gandhi attained all-India stature as a leader, his work gave him less time to nurse and enforce nature cures. He even had to compromise on his principles in order to restore his health, by agreeing to take goat’s milk as a substitute for cow’s milk. However, throughout his life he advised people about their diets and nature cures.


The Gandhis were firm in sticking to vegetarianism even in the face of death. Manilal caught typhoid in Mumbai, combined with pneumonia and was delirious with a high fever. The doctor advised a diet of eggs and chicken broth. The Gandhis declined. Instead, Gandhi decided to treat his son with hydropathy and a diet of diluted orange juice. It brought scant results, so the father prayed and used a wet pack to treat his son. The fever began to climb down. Gandhi persisted with this treatment for six weeks till Manilal was cured.7

When Kasturba was haemorrhaging and had a surgery in Durban, she grew very weak. Once again the doctor prescribed beef tea. Gandhi refused and the doctor asked for her to be removed from his care if he did not have the freedom to treat her with the proper nourishment. Kasturba herself weighed in refusing to take beef tea and asked to return home. Despite the grave risk, carried in a hammock by six men, and at one point carried in the arms of her husband, Kasturba returned to the Phoenix ashram. Here Kasturba recovered with the help of hydrotherapy and a diet advised by Gandhi.8 Gandhi believed all diseases were curable with ‘earth and water treatment, fasting or changes in diet.’ On Tolstoy Farm they never had a case that necessitated the use of drugs or called for a doctor.9


To Gandhi, it had always been a mystery ‘how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.’10 It was this that led him to cleaning his own chamber pots and forcing his wife to do the same, including cleaning those of their house guests in 1898. So fervently did he feel about it then, in one famous instance, he was ready to push Kasturba out of the house when she refused.11 Sanitary reform was as much an issue of importance for Gandhi as demanding political rights. Though he met resistance among the community for keeping their environment clean, ultimately after the experience with the plague, Gandhi prevailed.12

On returning to India, Gandhi attended a Congress meeting for the first time in 1901. Here he observed the insanitary habits of delegates and their behaviour in distancing themselves from others so as to avoid being ‘polluted’. There were pools of water everywhere and an intolerable stench from the few available latrines. The volunteers refused to clean this, saying it was the work of scavengers, so Gandhi took a broom and cleaned up personally.13

On Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi proudly reports that no refuse or dirt was to be seen anywhere. Rubbish was buried in purpose-built trenches, while all waste water was used to water the trees. Food and vegetable shavings were turned to compost and night soil was buried in specific pits in the earth, thereby removing any flies or stench as well as providing valuable manure.14


The term satyagraha was born in South Africa,15 when Gandhi mobilized the Indian community to peacefully agitate for their rights. Its tools were passive resistance, nonviolent non-cooperation and civil disobedience.16 An empowering strategy, satyagraha forbids physical force, and aims to win over adversaries by suffering in one’s own person.17 The espousal of ahimsa (nonviolence) was premised on abhaya (fearlessness),18 not only from getting hurt, but also of defying conventional mores of society.19

The vows of Satyagrahis were greatly influenced by those of the karma yogi from Gandhi’s readings of the Yogasutra, which demanded ahimsa, satya, asteya (non-materialism), niyama (rules-based), cleanliness, peacefulness, selflessness and austerity. Education, Gandhi believed, was essential for building cleanliness and good manners.20 This was put to the test in Champaran by women volunteers, who not only taught basic literacy, but also did and taught sanitary work. In order to penetrate the villages, in each of the village schools that the satyagrahis established, they stationed a male and female volunteer to see to medical relief and sanitation.21

The latter was difficult, as there was great resistance to scavenging. Gradually, however, by example, and once they gained the confidence and respect of the village folk, the satyagrahis showed villagers how to sweep roads and courtyards, clean out wells, and prevent water from accumulating, raising volunteers from amongst themselves.22 This became a hallmark of satyagraha workers, who performed this cleansing and taught cleanliness in all villages that they entered.


When Gandhi returned to India to bring his family to South Africa in 1896, plague broke out in Mumbai. Fear of an outbreak in Rajkot led Gandhi to volunteer his services to a committee looking into the matter. Gandhi’s immediate suggestion to improve cleanliness of latrines led to inspections of these in every street. The poor agreed to the inspections and undertook the suggested improvements. The latrines of the rich, observed Gandhi, were abominably filthy – they resisted inspection as well as the renovations suggested to improve sanitation.

While other members of the committee refused to inspect the localities of untouchables, Gandhi welcomed it – his first visit to these areas. Here he learnt that the community had no latrines and had to use the open air instead. But their actual living quarters he found to be clean and well kept, and in no danger of hosting the plague.23

For Gandhi, good sanitation was a means to gain the respect of and reduce oppression by the white rulers: ‘For whenever there is an outbreak of epidemics, the executive, as a general rule, get impatient, take excessive measures and behave to such as may have incurred their displeasure with a heavy hand.’24

Gandhi believed ‘self-purification’(cleanliness and good sanitation) went hand in hand with his political demands.25 By the time Gandhi returned to Johannesburg, there was an outbreak of plague which threatened the densely populated neighbourhood of ex-indentured Indian labourers. Deliberate neglect by the municipality had rendered this neighbourhood a site of squalor. When 23 residents, all workers in a gold mine, got ill with the plague, Gandhi was called. Sjt. Madanjit, who was seeking subscribers to Gandhi’s journal, Indian Opinion, broke the lock of a vacant house and housed all the patients there. Once they informed the Town Clerk, they were joined by Dr William Godfrey and four of Gandhi’s assistants. Between them, they nursed the patients all night, giving them medicines, attending to their wants, keeping them tidy and cheering them up. All the patients pulled through that night.


The Town Council thanked Gandhi for his prompt action, but lacked the means to cope with the emergency. The municipality, now alerted to this danger, gave them a vacant godown to move the patients to, but the task of cleaning the premises, getting beds and hospital equipment to make a temporary hospital, fell to this small band of volunteers. A nurse arrived to assist, but they did not let her touch the patients to protect her from the contagion. They were asked to take brandy as a precaution and dispense some to the patients as well. None of the volunteers took it and three patients also refused. Gandhi treated these three patients with earth packs on their heads and chests. Two of them survived and all the remaining 21, together with the nurse, succumbed.

Gandhi wrote a strong letter in the press, citing the municipality’s negligence as the cause of the outbreak. This won him many new and useful friends, and also increased his profile in South Africa. In contrast to its negligence of the Indians, the municipality spent large amounts of money to protect the white population from the plague. Even in this effort, Gandhi assisted them.26 He used his influence to get the Indian community to cooperate with all the anti-plague measures, as guards monitored their goings and comings via special permits. The residents had to move to a tented field 13 miles from the city, in an open plain, while the old neighbourhood was torched.27 Their anxiety was assuaged by Gandhi’s comforting presence.


Gandhi’s loyalty to the empire at the time stemmed from his belief that India could achieve ‘complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire.’28 Therefore, three times Gandhi volunteered his services to the British when they were at war, despite his sympathies being with the opposing side.

At the outbreak of Boer War (1899-1902), Gandhi assembled 1100 volunteers, who the kindly Dr Booth trained in ambulance work. The Indian Ambulance Corps (IAC) was called into action when the Boers put up a tough fight. Although the IAC was kept out of the firing line, and had the protection of the Red Cross, eventually they were requested to pick up the wounded within the firing line. Sometimes they had to carry the wounded on stretchers for 25 miles. They served for six weeks and were lauded in the press as being ‘Sons of Empire’. This experience not only served to bring Gandhi closer to the numerous communities of Indians in South Africa, but also led to camaraderie and pleasantness between the Indians and the British soldiers.29

Once again, in 1906 during the Zulu Rebellion, Gandhi offered the services of an IAC of 24 strong. Gandhi’s sympathies were with the Zulus. He felt it was not rightly labelled a rebellion: a Zulu chief refused to pay a tax newly levied on his people. So Gandhi was delighted when the IAC was assigned to tend to the wounded Zulus. Dr Savage, the Medical Officer, was pleased to have their assistance, as the white nurses refused to tend to the Zulus.30 Though the job of the IAC was simply to bring the wounded to the hospital, the team happily took on the job of nursing the Zulus, whose wounds, inflicted by torture, were festering.31 Sometimes the IAC had to march over forty miles a day when the swift-moving mounted infantry to which they were attached, moved camp.

Each member of the Corps was awarded a medal for their work and the Governor wrote them a letter of thanks.32 The behaviour of the IAC impressed even those British commanding officers who had hitherto opposed Gandhi, and they specially called to thank him.33


Gandhi arrived in London within two days (August 1914) of the great war breaking out, in poor health, as he was still recovering from the fast he had undertaken in South Africa. He felt it the duty of Indians in the UK to contribute to the war effort, rather than take the opportunity to press their political demands at a time when the Empire was weak. Despite objections and consternation of his comrades in India, who felt this participation in war was inconsistent with his doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence), eighty men volunteered for ambulance work.34 In the end, all served except Gandhi who was ill with pleurisy and had not yet regained his health.35 Obstinately clinging to his diet of fruit and nuts, refusing to take milk or meat as recommended by the physician and his mentor Gokhale, Gandhi did not improve. Eventually he was convinced to return home to India where he could be cured.


The Spanish Flu epidemic must have been raging when Gandhi’s political work led him to support the Khilafat Movement at the end of World War I, with the aim to foster closer relations between Hindus and Muslims. As troop ships and soldiers returned after the war, they brought the infection first to Mumbai, and then as they dispersed to their home villages, the rural areas got infected as well.

By 1919, the virus became virulent, killing large numbers of young people aged between 20 to 40. So many young women succumbed to it, that for the first time India’s birth rate that year fell by 30%.36 Spanish protocols to protect against it – wearing of masks, keeping distance, isolating and quarantining in case of infections, allowing for fresh air and light – were all remarkably similar to those currently in place against Covid-19. Yet in India, the administration took little action. This may have been due to a dearth of doctors away at the war front, or themselves victims of the virus.

Suffering from exhaustion after the Champaran and Kheda campaigns, Gandhi was wracked with dysentery and in need of surgery for fissures. While he lay seriously ill, his daughter-in-law and grandson died due to the flu. Yet, strangely, Gandhi did not name their illness nor did he mention it was the flu that reputedly killed upwards of 15 million people in India. Likely, the authorities’ lack of response and suppression of media hid the facts of this epidemic. Therefore no call to action was taken by Gandhi.


So far, though India has a very high rate of infection, the mortality from Covid-19 infections is lower compared with other countries. Nevertheless, it has severely strained medical resources and impacted the economy, putting livelihoods and the economy at risk. How would Gandhi have reacted to the pandemic we are facing today?

With the knowledge we have of protocols to follow to prevent spread of the disease, we can imagine Gandhi’s sarvodaya workers organizing in groups of 6 to 8 and going from bastis to villages with masks, brooms, disinfectant and soap, upon the outbreak of the pandemic. These simple items would be donated by big businesses or through collections taken up by community organizations. Distribution of food and essential items would be addressed similarly.

Despite the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign in place for the last six years that has the Mahatma’s iconic spectacles on its logo as his endorsement, cleanliness of public spaces still require a good deal of work. Firstly, the workers would sweep and clean all the public areas of the basti or village upon arrival, while educating the residents how to do so, if needed. They would also inspect all homes, advise residents about disinfecting common spaces, ensuring good ventilation and the need to wash hands upon returning home from outside. Getting fresh air and daily exercise would be encouraged.


The workers would stress the importance of avoiding crowded places, while wearing masks when outside. To overcome the problem of a shortage of masks or using disposable masks that create more waste for landfills, they would turn mask-making into a cottage industry, which has been done in many parts of the country. The workers would also impress upon the residents the importance of quarantining the infected, and isolating the sick, while advising their caregivers the protocols to follow.

Sarvodya volunteers would encourage residents to introspect, and use the time to discover their own hidden potential. Rather than feel restrained, they would be taught to turn it into an advantage to produce more or explore avenues of thought and creativity. Teams of volunteers would be formed in each community to serve and assist the residents in following these protocols. The Sarvodaya workers would tour the area returning to each basti and village at least once a month to encourage the communities, refresh supplies and boost morale.

Many of these measures are indeed in place, mostly carried out by NGOs, inspired by the model that Gandhi –the civilly disobedient satyagrahi – believed: that political work goes hand-in-hand with social reform, of which cleanliness and hygiene are the chief pillars.



1. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (trans, Mahadev Desai). Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1927, (reprint 1976), p. 151.

2. Ibid., p. 151.

3. Ibid., p. 152.

4. Ibid., p. 130; Rajmohan Gandhi, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 85-6.

5. Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Collier Books, Toronto, 1969, pp. 67-8; M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (trans. Valji Govindji Desai). Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1928, (reprint, 1972), pp. 233-4.

6. M.K. Gandhi, ibid., p. 234.

7. Ibid., pp. 185-7.

8. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1927, pp. 242-6.

9. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1928, p. 226.

10. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1927, p. 116.

11. Ibid., p. 208.

12. Ibid., p. 163.

13. Ibid., p. 169.

14. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1928, p. 219.

15. Ibid., p. 102.

16. Coonoor Kripalani, ‘A Comparative Study of the Political Concepts of M.K. Gandhi and Mao Zedong, 1919-1949’, M.Phil. thesis, University of Hong Kong, 1986, p. 212.

17. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1928, p. 106.

18. C. Kripalani, ‘Gandhi and Mao’, p. 222.

19. Coonoor Kripalani, Mahatma Gandhi: Apostle of Non-Violence. Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2003, see chap. 6, pp. 75-8.

20. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1927, p. 317.

21. Ibid., p. 317.

22. Ibid., p. 318.

23. Ibid., p. 127.

24. Ibid., p. 163.

25. Ibid., p. 163.

26. Ibid., p. 221.

27. Ibid., p. 222.

28. Ibid., p. 161.

29. Ibid., p. 162.

30. Ibid., p. 236.

31. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1928, p. 91.

32. Ibid.

33. M.K. Gandhi, op. cit., 1927, p. 236.

34. Ibid., pp. 263-5.

35. Ibid., pp. 265-8.

36. Sifra Lentin, ‘The 1918 ‘flu: India’s Worst Pandemic’, Gateway House Weekly Brief, 17 September 2020,’s+worst+pandemic&utm_campaign=20200917_m160059292_Weekly+Briefing+2018&utm_term=The+1918+flu+India_E2_80_99s+worst+pandemic (accessed 30 October 2020).