Residents light candles and turn on their mobile phone lights outside their home to observe a nine-minute vigil called by Indian Prime Minister in a show of unity and solidarity in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, in Allahabad on April 5, 2020. Photo: AFP / Sanjay Kanojia

The great communicators across history knew the power of collective consciousness. On Sunday night, India answered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to switch off household electric lights and light a candle or lamp or shine a flashlight at 9pm for nine minutes – in universal solidarity against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lamp lights glowed at 9pm – the first time in days some activity had been seen in residential buildings in this writer’s Mumbai neighborhood, after India went into a curfew-like 21-day lockdown on March 25.

India lights up at 9.00 pm April 5, in universal solidarity against COVID-19
India lit lamps and candles at 9pm on April 5, in universal solidarity against Covid-19. Photo: Courtesy Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma.

From 9pm there were lights, from 9:05 a few cheers and by 9:20pm the silence of these strange times returned, the eerie hush that embraced both nights and days of solitude.

No other democracy has so strict a lockdown as India to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) that causes the Covid-19 respiratory disease.

Visuals of the night against Covid-19 soon lit up social media:

Millions answered the prime minister’s call to light up a “Diwali in April,” as novelist Shobhaa De called it. Diwali or Deepavali is India’s annual festival of lights celebrated in October-November, to symbolize the victory of good over evil.

Modi’s “Light of Hope” campaign found support across various walks of life, from billionaire industrialists to roadside dwellers in tents, from opposition leaders to soldiers trained to fight another kind of war.

Even leaving aside subtler reasons behind Modi’s call, if the simple act of lighting a candle can de-stress one single person suffering from isolation and the other anxieties of a lockdown, then it becomes momentary therapy to help work through another 10 days of confinement. It could be longer.

India called it #LightsOfHope, the collective positivity of a billion people.

Not all joined the “Diwali in April,” for where optimistic positive forces dawn, some forces of cynical negativity lurk. These could be the same worthies who jeered when India came out to applaud from balconies on another Sunday, March 22, in solidarity with health-care workers.

They did not jeer when Britain followed suit the next week, applauding British National Health Service (NHS) workers in a similar symbolic show of solidarity five days later.

A sincerity of volition elicits the response Modi had on April 5 and March 22. The applauding response on March 22 may have persuaded him to do on March 25 what no other leader in the free world dared against the new coronavirus: completely shut down the world’s fifth-largest economy to save lives, an economy larger than the UK and France.

Many Western governmental leaders, including the voluble US President Donald Trump, have fatally doled out mixed messages of trying to save both livelihoods and lives.

Modi took the great big step of clarity needed to fight this Covid-19 war effectively: the courage to enforce a virtual curfew on the entire country and ensure “social distancing” – when the death toll was nine on March 24.

The economy was frozen, and 1.3 billion people suffered unprecedented inconveniences. If Modi had miscalculated and the results had gone wrong, there is no way India would have stayed home the way it did. No way would India have readied to light candles cheerfully at night 10 days later.

Positivity helps – even from the light of a humble candle. Wars need sacrifices, harsh costs to pay. Wars need the strength of mind to face losses – and fight on.

In this world war against a pandemic, homes became the trenches for battle, hospitals the frontlines and courageous warriors of doctors, nurses medical workers risking and losing their lives in fighting to save the lives of others. Not forgetting everyone working in essential services, grocery stores to those ensuring power, water, internet connections and the necessities of life.

At this writing, India has suffered 136 Covid-19 deaths since detecting the first coronavirus-infected person on January 29, out of 74,176 dead worldwide; Afghanistan has reported 11 dead from Covid-19, Sri Lanka five, Bangladesh 12, Myanmar one, both Nepal and Bhutan none. Nepal, with no reported fatalities, has extended its lockdown to April 15.

If the casualty numbers are right, South Asia – representing one-fifth of the world’s population – has done something right: curfew-like lockdowns.

But much more needs to be done.

The rising number of Covid-19 victims will help persuade more of us to heed the brutality of a pandemic. Dr David Hepburn of Britain’s NHS shared his experience of surviving Covid-19 and treating coronavirus patients in an interview with Channel 4.

The work is far from done. Through data models, theories, projections, studies and wiggly graphs of red, blue lines arcing upwards, a reality stands out on what awaits the world in the next six months: No one has a clue.

But hope is the starting point to fight the way through to better times, the normalcy of days – even the hope from candles lit up in a shared darkness.

I lost nothing with a candle lit on Sunday night, having acted upon a favorite saying:

Raja Murthy has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990 and earlier for the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden, The Hindu and others.