I have recently been watching the British TV series The Indian Doctor. It is a fish-out-of-water story similar to the other British show Doc Martin. The latter featured a brilliant but irascible surgeon with zero social skills and no tolerance for stupidity or even small talk who becomes a general practitioner in a small fishing village in the southwest of England where he has to deal with nosy and gossipy villagers. The Indian Doctor deals with another skilled doctor Prem Sharma who arrives in a small Welsh coal mining town in 1963 as its sole doctor after being recruited from India by the British government to staff its expanding National Health Service.
Whereas Martin is rude and impatient with everyone, Sharma is genial and polite. Sharma’s wife Kamini, however, comes from a very wealthy upper-class family in India and had hoped that her husband would be a Harley Street specialist so that they could live in London and enjoy its cultural life. She is dismayed at being stuck in a backwater, living in a grungy apartment over the equally grungy doctor’s office and where she has to do all the chores that servants did for her back home. She also has to deal with the suspicions and prejudices that small tightly knit communities have about any outsider. The town’s people even think of the English as foreigners, so people from as exotic a place as India are viewed as almost an alien species.
The first series is a little slow but in the second series filmed in 2012, the storyline involves a young boy who is found to have smallpox and how everyone reacts to the shocking development. The show presages what we see now in this pandemic. Sharma and the sole village policemen quickly take charge and they quarantine the village, allowing no one to enter or leave, and insist that all the places where people gather indoors, such as shops, pubs, and churches be closed immediately. Everyone is instructed to stay at home or, if they must go out, wear masks and stay six feet apart. Sharma also does contact tracing, trying to identify everyone whom the boy met and whom those people met, and so on, so that he can isolate the virus. All these are the same measures recommended now. The story shows that the way to treat infectious diseases is simple, universal, and timeless. This is one of those instances where the best scientific advice overlaps with common sense, and so it is baffling that it meets with such resistance.
The similarities with the current situation do not end there. We find that many people in the village are skeptical of science or think that the situation is not that serious or that they are immune from infection because they never get ill. Hence they flout the safety protocols and even refuse to take the vaccine because of fears that it is somehow dangerous and may be a cause of the disease, even though it has been shown to be effective and safe.
There is also priest, just returned after doing missionary work in Africa, who refuses to get vaccinated, saying that his god will decide if he lives or dies, and he speaks somewhat sarcastically to Sharma about how he does not worship the ‘god of science’ that Sharma (who is a Hindu, at least nominally) does. He defies the orders of Sharma and goes to the bedside of the victim to pray and lays hands on him. He even holds church services and prayer meetings in defiance of the shut down order issued by the policeman and tells people that if they have faith and pray, his god will protect them from the disease.
As I was watching it, I was struck by how accurately a fictional show made in 2012 and set in a single small Welsh village in 1963 foretold the same dynamics that we see on a much larger canvas in the US right now.
Here’s the trailer for season one.