It is now exactly as it would be in the movies. An apocalyptic virus taking siege. Coronavirus. COVID-19. The meat of memes and disrupter of civilisation.
This virus, if it were a modern head-of-state, would challenge even the Robespierres and Hitlers, in sheer terms of terror. Bin Laden was a thumb-sucking baby compared to this microorganism. Even the plague and other epidemics lacked Corona’s stature and sweep. Corona, like its name, has earned its own crown, even making a crown prince’s chance if earning his, a tad dubious.
A very egalitarian virus this is, but doesn’t discriminate at all—quite a communist, socialist thing, but that’s in its genes. Not being like a certain legally or illegally blonde head of state, though. But just stating the obvious geographical indication for the virus.
Now even Achilles had his heel, so does Corona have its spikes, rather little ones if you ask me, with buttony knobs on their ends. Sadistically speaking, they are vulnerable. To soap, for starters. The humble suds that used to get washed off without a mention, the white fragrant froth that many of us in our bid to go green and save the world, were abandoning, for, well, greener stuff nicer to our skin, suddenly is the superhero. Soap dissolves the spikes and makes the Coronavirus a harmless, spikeless entity.
Corona has another weak point—it is very clingy. Past heartbreak, I am sure of it, or childhood abandonment issues, perhaps? Too clingy for it own good. So, distance, space are its main turn-offs. Corona freaks out if there is distance. Since it travels through mucus and saliva and gross things spread through contact, distance is quite a threat to its pretty empire. We, smart humans that we are, made up a new word and started practising it—social distancing. Not a win-win situation for either the virus or the human race, as both are suffering intensely, but at least we stay alive, or hope to, at any rate.
In my country, where you can earn more respect from a man, by being a cow, rather than by being a woman, Corona is not just a virus. There is nothing that is ‘just’ something in India. And there are far more important things than staying alive. For example, faiths, festivals, weddings, the prodigal-returning-home-from-‘abroad’ parties. For the rest of us, struggling with making groceries last, depression from being under helpless house-arrest, and the chronic anxiety of disease and death, memes on Facebook are our saviour. Also, sometimes our uncommonly jolly and sarcastic therapist.
Social distancing is a very alien notion to the second most populated country in the world and one of the most densely populated countries. In a country where parents consider it their moral duty to not respect the privacy of their children long after they reach adulthood, distance is a morally dubious word. Yet we are practising it somehow, mostly.
We have circles being drawn by the police and by the rare chief minister, outside markets and shops to teach us the concept. We have the nation’s prime minister announcing Janta Curfew first to prepare us for the lockdown, now in full swing. We are beating utensils and lighting candles and lamps, some because they obey their government well, some because they just want to show solidarity, some because they believe ‘scientific data’ that correlates candlelight with conquering Corona. Our new national refrain is “Corona Go”, our brains are on lockdown as much as our feet are.
We watch the news with this unholy fascination for morbidity, we switch to a staple diet of memes, we cook up storms in the kitchen, sometimes too literally, we turn into artists, a lot of us. And we reminisce about times and people and places taken for granted even three weeks ago.
I haven’t hugged a friend or family in more than three weeks. Haven’t high-fived anyone either. Shaking hands has been off-limits. Touch is suddenly a dreaded word. Intimacy of touch, suddenly dirty, and rife with the risk of contagion. The basic human gestures, like cupping one’s own face in hands, or brushing hair off our eyes, or just putting the finger on our lips, are all suddenly forbidden. All possible contact-zones for infection and spread of the virus. We wash our hands dry. I, myself have become quite the Lady Macbeth, without even having murdered any King Duncan. All great Neptune’s ocean and litres of handwash are not enough to clean the constant fear of spread of the dreaded COVID-19. Would blood be easier to wash off?
As the nation in lockdown, we somewhat know our to-do’s and don’t’s. But are we ready yet for a post-Corona world?
Our habits are changing, our ways of human interaction are changing, our modes of learning, working, expressing are changing, our language of love is changing. And we are learning to stay at home.
I often cannot believe that we, as a race, in our period of greatest solidarity with each other, are in a place where we cannot hold, touch, meet each other, cannot touch our own faces. The Coronavirus has already changed us.
We will pause before hugging that friend, sanitise our hands before holding hands in love, double-check and hesitate before we kiss, sanitise again after touching a fellow human, or even ourselves.
Not just that, the very way we have looked upon access to education, to healthcare, and to our own courses of employment and occupation, will all undergo irremediable change. Whether for the better or worse, we don’t know. Maybe we never will. Maybe we will just get used to this cautious, impersonal, almost-socialist way of being and belonging.
Again, we are realising that most of the jobs that used to mandate 9 hours at the desk, can be managed from home, when push comes to shove. IT companies that couldn’t arrange work-from-home for their employees even while Corona cases were increasing in numbers, could arrange everything when the lockdown was called. Meaning, that there was always this way of productivity, that put employees’ well-being first, maybe that it wasn’t important enough for the corporates.
The modicum of working is changing, and work-from-home is enabling this fluid balance between professional and personal lives which wasn’t very easy when people left home at 9 in the morning and returned at 9 in the night. Teachers and professors are teaching from their homes, too.
Suddenly, the teachers on the other side of the classroom have become people, with human lives, children chattering in the background, utensils clanging somewhere, and you can see that they drink coffee from a green mug with a stainless steel rim, that their curtains have large flowers on them, that they like gerberas as much as you do, that they have favourite home clothes just like you. Somewhere that blurs the lines, and not always in a bad way. I personally find it way more endearing and relatable.
Our universities, schools, colleges, classrooms have been replaced by online video classes. Brilliant move for the continuation of uninterrupted education, but it has its inevitable pitfalls. I, for one, sleep through early morning classes, after having logged in. Nothing to judge here, sleep is important. The real tectonic shift is in the case of exams, as conventional modes of testing a student’s knowledge are being reevaluated and reimagined. So, a shift from mugging-up to critical analysis might be in place, as open-book online exams replace examination halls.
Thus, with this flexibility of ‘remote functionality’, the physical spaces like schools, colleges, universities, offices, workspaces, IT and commercial hubs will need rethinking and reworking. Home-schooling, for one, would not be such an exceptional thing, as more and more parents would prefer it, fully or partially, over regular school, that is often too regimented, restrictive to child development and time-consuming. While not all jobs can be done remotely, most of them can. This lockdown has shown that to us.
Katherine Mangu-Ward, Editor-in-Chief, Reason Magazine, notes, Once companies sort out their remote work dance steps, it will be harder—and more expensive—to deny employees those options. In other words, it turns out, an awful lot of meetings (and doctors’ appointments and classes) really could have been an email. And now they will be.
And now, the world is learning how to be devoid of the human touch, the personal has become dangerous. But at the same time, we are coming together, in spirit, now more than ever. Coronavirus is the “common enemy” for the world now. Peter T. Coleman, professor of Psychology at Columbia University hopes that this pandemic will lead to a decline in polarization and an “ascendance of human goodness”, as people, forced to face utmost adversity, are learning and practising altruism, compassion, generosity and kindness.
This is a virus that is making people be better versions of themselves, something that better times could not ensure. Individualism is taking a back seat, as collective interests are gaining dominance in decision making. This might mark the end of our generation’s “romance with capitalistic market society and hyper-individualism”, as says Eric Klinenberg, professor in the social sciences at New York University. He also predicts that this shifting trend might lead to prospective authoritarianism and a return to socialist principles, as investment in public goods and services, like public health and public welfare, take precedence over capitalistic wealth-creating investment strategies. The world has been jolted hard. And it is learning to set its priorities right.
How curious that all it took the world to realize all this was a microscopic virus. Prayer and worship are gradually shifting from a congregational format to silent communion, mostly at home, probably alone, or with family. The novel coronavirus may just be turning Lennon’s Imagine from a dream to a functionally possible reality –
“Imagine all the people
Living for today….
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…..
And the world will live as one”
Sherry Turkle, professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that this ‘looking within’ necessitated by this crisis will also lead to a healthier digital lifestyle, aimed more at empathy and fellow-feeling rather than a capitalistic pursuit of relentless individual happiness—“If, moving forward, we apply our most human instincts to our devices, that will have been a powerful COVID-19 legacy. Not only alone together, but together alone.”
Our lives as we had known them, are in for a big change. Our social, economic, cultural, personal and political behaviour too would change. Even after lockdown ends, what we had been used to as ‘normal’ might not feel ‘normal’ anymore. We would avoid places with people. Cinema halls and multiplexes would now have a fear-factor attached to them, when even a month back, we used to go to the movies as an easy solution to a hard day, for a friends’ get together, for a date, for some me-time, for catching up with the family, or just for caramel popcorn with the niece.
Dating itself will be the hardest hit, of all social interactions. “Love in the Time of Corona” is a good hashtag, but love is clearly in throwback-mode, except for the ones staying together now. The future too looks bleak for poor Cupid. Restaurants, bars, pubs, cafes, our favourite cha places, our favourite street food haunts, would all now be places we would worry about going to.
And travel? Wanderlust stopped being a cool word half a decade ago, but now this word will evoke dread, fear of contagion, and those still travelling will be looked upon as desperados. Yet it was only a month ago that I had been to the beach, had the high-tide waves crash on me, as I got drenched in the sea. My heart craves for the mist-eaten hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, for walks down those quaint steep paths. My heart craves to see Pondicherry, and Coorg and the white beaches of Kovalam. And Italy, and France and Spain. Yet, all plans will probably be on hold.
Firstly, the economy would be in such shambles that I would probably not be able to afford to travel. Secondly, I would probably not be able to risk it. Now the second one is sadder, though the first one is a regret-pump.
The more I think about life post-Corona, the sadder I get. I miss my friends, the ones I used to meet every week, and the ones I wouldn’t. But I also treasure each one of them more now. I have learnt that time together with loved ones are always time to be grateful for. I have also learnt to let go, of people, memories, experiences that I should have let go, instead of letting them hold me back. As I deal with a life without domestic help, without proper work, without a place to go to every morning and return home from, I’m learning empathy.
Those of us who have had the sheer privilege of being able to stay at home, and stay safe, are also getting extra time. And suddenly, we have the time to do those little things our hearts always wanted to do. The world is suddenly a more creative place. And so many people are coming forward with food and relief for the ones not so fortunate enough. So many are reaching out for the stray dogs and cats. Air pollution levels are low, and the air feels as fresh as 1993!
Post-Corona, our lives will perhaps not be the same again. We will perhaps not be the same either. In both good ways and not so good ways. We will work differently, live differently, love differently. This is probably a watershed moment for human civilization.
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Dyuti is a lawyer, and a professional dreamer, a part-time poet, and a full-time overthinker. She tries to be, amongst other things, a writer, a scholar, and a good influence. Can talk to cats more than to most humans, and is fierce and passionate about words. She has previously written for The Times of India.