When the coronavirus has spread to nearly every country in the world, why hasn’t it in Nepal? After all, China is just across the border, and one can see many Chinese as well as European tourists in Nepal. Surely someone must have been in contact with someone else who was infected. The situation is certainly curious—so much so that even the politicians have gone on record, asserting confidently: “Coronavirus won’t come to Nepal.”
Why have we avoided the epidemic? This question struck a doctor in Nepal. In an article in Nagarik, Doctor Sher Bahadur Pun hypothesized that the tradition of using one’s hands for eating, dishwashing, laundry, washing after defecation, etc may be pivotal in eliminating the virus. We “play with water” in all our daily activities. Unlike people of developed countries who do not wash hands before eating, people in Nepal wash twice: once before and once after a meal. They also don’t have appliances (or, like me, choose not to use them), so they wash clothes and do dishes by hand. Again, this means a thorough soak in strong soap and water for long at least twice a day. In addition, people use their hands to wash themselves after going to the toilet, and this is followed by a hand wash at least two or three times a day.
Although I bought a washing machine, I never used it. I like using my bucket to soak my clothes overnight, before rinsing them in the morning and hanging them out to dry. My eighty-five-year-old father still washes his underwear and socks himself daily. The thought of piling up used underwear and socks for a once a week laundry always discomforted me, which is why I may have reverted to a daily wash. Although it’s not always possible to do laundry every day—aches and pains, fevers, period blues can strike the body—I find the daily activity of washing one’s clothes gives a sense of work completed. I get this ethics from my mother, who in her seventies still likes to “pacharnu” (thrash) her clothes and give it a sun dry, even if she can’t thoroughly soap and rinse the clothes due to diabetes and high blood pressure.
After reading the Nagarik article, it occurred to me that nobody in the West washes their hands before or after eating. Cutlery has given the West a sense of immunity. They would be appalled at the idea of eating with hands, because they assume their civilizational habits are supreme and there can be no more discussion about this matter. In fact, there’s nothing clean about plastic cutlery that’s been handled multiple times by plastic distributors, restaurant workers, food deliverers and other people on the chain of transmission. Coronavirus survives 3-4 days on plastic, as opposed to four hours on copper. Even when eating with metal cutlery, people in the civilized West are at risk due to their hygiene habits.
There might be small particles of food and saliva on their hands which they may have wiped off with a paper or cloth napkin, but that is not enough to wash away a virus. They walk around confidently afterwards with saliva contaminated and germ-laden hands and handle money, papers, and office equipment. They shake hands and they kiss other people goodbye, touching people’s bodies and clothing with the same fingers they just dipped into the pasta sauce or in half-raw beef sandwich.
“White People, you need to wash your butts: Toilet paper is not enough,” wrote Indi Samarajiva on Medium, bringing lots of laughs and a fair amount of agreement. His laugh out loud funny article argued that not washing one’s butts was dirtier than using toilet paper. Besides toilet paper panic post coronavirus, the article brought to the fore the issue of deforestation. Western notions of sanitation has been one of the most harmful practices for the environment—from toilet paper that deforests entire forests to the flush that consumes eight liters of water, from cleaning chemicals of toxic provenance to sanitary pads made of plastic which clog up waterways. Sanitation Western-style has bulldozed environments worldwide.
Could it be that a reversal to traditional ways of living might be the way to avoid this pandemic, rather than AI or Gilead stocks? In Nepal, people cook their own meals twice a day, eat with their hands, wash before and after eating, wash their dishes and laundry with soap and water every day, rarely go to restaurants, do not use much plastic cutlery, and in general live a simple life in which plastic is minimized. They also practice avoidance of “jutho”—anything touched by saliva or saliva touched hands. They do not accept or offer jutho to others. They don’t shake hands—they do namaste, and in general maintain a respectful distance between people.
All of this was scorned as Brahminical puritanism by the Maoists, who forced Brahmins to eat food from the same plate as strangers under pain of death. Ostensibly meant to be a caste equalizer, as Brahmins don’t share food with other castes, what these forcibly shared meals overlooked is that Brahmins don’t even share food with their own family members— they always respect the right of the other person not to be contaminated by the saliva of someone else.
Will the Eurocentric world listen to this age-old wisdom? Or would they rather die instead?