As pandemic strips away accumulated inertia of decades, 'After Coronavirus' may be a whole brave new world
The coronavirus pandemic, like the World Wars, is a harbinger of revolutionary changes. It is accelerating the destruction of the old, and hastening the arrival of the new.
Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire
Many years ago, I can’t quite recall when, I saw a film called Groundhog Day. It is a fantasy comedy film in which the principal character gets stuck in a single day and cannot get out — he goes to bed one ordinary night, and wakes up the next morning to find it’s yesterday all over again. And again. And again. The film released in 1993. It has become uncomfortably real for a lot of people around the world in 2020. Our lives are now stuck in time, in a kind of Groundhog Day where every day feels like the previous one. If we’re living a comedy, it is of a very dark kind.
It is now more than six months since the coronavirus pandemic began its global spread. During this time, we have gone from disbelief to panic to resignation, and some distance back again. Our daily lives have been upended. We no longer know when — and if — we will get our normal lives back. With the passage of time, many a new normal is gradually establishing itself. A return to the world Before Coronavirus will be difficult.
“Normal” is a function of habits, small and big.
For instance, it was normal, in the world before coronavirus, for a lot of households to get the daily newspaper delivered to their doorsteps, even if they were already getting most of their news from the mobile phone. The newspaper was a habit. The pandemic changed that abruptly; the coronavirus is killing the newspaper. There have been massive cuts, retrenchments and layoffs throughout the print media industry in India. For a lot of the journalists laid off, there will be no going back to a “normal” print media job.
There may be no return to normal for a lot of movie theatres either. They have been closed since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, even those who did not often watch films on Netflix and Amazon are doing so now. The habit of movie consumption, already in the process of changing, is now probably altered for good. Even the habit of shopping has faced a hard reset with the pandemic. We have got used to buying everything we need online. There is a pleasure in being out and about, but the ways in which we spend our leisure may not be the same in the world after COVID-19.
Work has changed more dramatically than leisure. After months of working from home, new habits have become established. Companies have found out that they can manage well enough without the whole staff physically being in office every day. As a result, wearing business suits and going to office, which started in stages after the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century when the first global multinational corporations like the East India Company were beginning to spread their wings, may have had its day. It will survive, but in the world after coronavirus, its centrality to our working lives is likely to remain much reduced. The idea of work is now dissociated from the idea of workplace.
The idea of a college education, too, has undergone something of a reset. The investment involved in spending big bucks for a brand name degree from a foreign university is no longer worth the risk for most people. Its hollowness was long hidden behind a manufactured aura; passage through those gurukuls elevated all who could pay their way to the status of instant Brahmins of the modern world, members of the intellectual elite regardless of the actual quality of their individual intellects. Now, with jobs scarcer than ever, spending a few million rupees to procure those threads of class membership is no longer worthwhile — especially if all the student will actually get is a bunch of Zoom lectures.
The coronavirus pandemic has stripped the world of many of its delusions and pretensions.
It has forced us to reckon with what is real and what is not, what matters and what does not. A lot — work, education, leisure — has been stripped down to essence. The essence of work never was in being the first to swipe in and the last to swipe out. The essence of education never really lay in physical presence in any classroom, as every student who has been mentally absent knows. The essential pleasure of watching a good movie is in watching the movie — not in the overpriced popcorn. The essence of news is not in the newspaper.
In retrospect, we actually knew all of this. We just didn’t act like we believed it. Our world moved and worked in old ways, from sheer inertia. The force of habit of millions of people, established over decades or centuries, kept things going as they had been before. Changes in ways of life over the past 150 years were breathtakingly fast by historical standards, but for the most part they were incremental, wrought by technology and often resisted by society. The pandemic, like the World Wars, is a harbinger of revolutionary changes. It is accelerating the destruction of the old, and hastening the arrival of the new.
Although it may seem to us, living in Groundhog Day, that the calendar itself has ceased to hold meaning and reality, the monotonous rhythms of billions of suspended daily lives hides the fact that the future is currently rushing into our lives at unprecedented speed.
Tomorrow may seem like yesterday, but After Coronavirus may be a whole brave new world.
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