Coronavirus Outbreak: As we make the radical behavioural changes required in face of pandemic, let's not give up on empathy
In over just a few weeks, a microbial entity has come not only to reign over our bodies and minds, but also to smash down our carefully constructed edifices of civility, good manners and all else that constitutes acceptable social behaviour.
Two weeks ago, when things seemed slightly less ominous than they do today, I was at a small family gathering in Mumbai. A big bottle of hand sanitiser was at the entrance, which the host urged the guests to use upon entry. Most of us preferred to wash our hands instead.
Throughout the evening, everyone spoke of nothing but the coronavirus. WhatsApp forwards were discussed by some, and thankfully dismissed by others (no, the virus does not die if we drink hot water; no, it was not created by humans with nefarious intentions; no, no, no); snide remarks masquerading as jokes were thrown around at those in the room who habitually coughed without covering their mouths, and every now and then one of us chimed in to say the scare was not hyped. At some point, someone showed someone else photos on his phone, but refused to let the viewer zoom in or take the phone in his hand. Later, a handful of people thought this gesture rude and thoughtless. I argued that it was, in fact, thoughtful.
In over just a few weeks, a microbial entity has come not only to reign over our bodies and minds, but also to smash down our carefully constructed edifices of civility, good manners and all else that constitutes acceptable social behaviour. Treading the fine line between delicacy and indiscretion has become more pertinent than ever before in the face of this fast-evolving pandemic. While there are very clear dos and don’ts on how to prevent the transmission of the deadly virus, the rule book on social interactions is hazy, harder to make sense of. After all, how do you tell others their sense of hygiene is wanting?
But with mortality seeming more real than imagined in the wake of this pandemic, we suddenly find ourselves emboldened enough to tell people off more firmly and easily.
The virus is slithering at our doorstep and to keep it away, we must draw boundaries at our door. We must tell those we love they’re no longer welcome, that we can’t contain them in our constrained physical empire. We must measure intimacies in feet and metres, not in shared affinities and desires.
We must exercise the only power we have against this virus, counterintuitive though it may be, and go against everything that makes us human. We must keep a distance.
In general, as Indians, our cultural identity pivots on togetherness, on the number of people we have gathered in our lifetime. We are loath to saying no and to come across as rude, but this is what the pandemic is forcing us to do for our own sake, and for the greater good. I asked my circle of friends how their dealings with fellow humans had changed; many said they had been suffused with a sense of discomfort. My friend, M, a teacher in an international school in Mumbai spoke of an awkward experience. The school shut and they had to transition to online lessons. M offered her home to a colleague whose Wi-Fi connection is rusty. But at some point, she had to tell him that while he was free to spend the day at her place, he had to make sure that he wouldn’t meet anyone in the evening, and self-quarantine.
“It was hard to have that conversation, but I had to because I live with my parents and grandparents. They are priority,” she said.
In India, especially, where so much of our socialising with family, friends and acquaintances happens at home, social distancing has been a tricky terrain to navigate. A relative, C, invited my cousins who were down from the US for dinner last week, but closer to the date she had to rescind the invitation because her building insisted on details of visitors, including where they were coming from. My cousins did not mind at all, but the invitee flushed with embarrassment.
Another friend, B, has had to modify her ways of being with her most beloved person, her 91-year-old grandmother. She has resorted to leaving chits for her to read because grandma can’t hear from a distance. B’s sister M can’t bear to look at old photos, that is, photos from 10 days ago, of her hugging her friends.
An acquaintance, F, said her friend’s mother passed away recently, but they informed everyone only after the funeral, to not put people in a fix about whether to attend. The dilemma is real — a very lovely person in our area passed away last week. It was heartbreaking to see neighbours torn between visiting the family and staying home. What was the right thing to do? What was the moral thing to do? As long as we continue to ask these questions, I think we will be fine. But we have no time to dither.
I am acutely aware that I write this from a place of privilege and that social distancing looks very different for me than for those whose livelihoods are dependent on being huddled together in groups. Additionally, I have never suffered the indignities of being told to change my clothes or wash my hands or move away from certain spaces because of caste or class position.
In the days to come, we will have to make radical alterations to our behaviours. And those will involve summoning the ability to say a resounding no, but without forgetting to be kind. To say no to a sister who wants to visit your old mother. To say no to a friend who wants to go for a walk with you in a large and empty playground but will go see her grandmother after. To say no to your mother who keeps insisting on how bored she is at home and one market run would do no harm.
We don’t know what these attitudinal changes will mean for us once this is over. This paranoia that has taken root, will it dissipate with time, or become an extended part of our personalities? Will we instinctively go for a hug or recoil in the presence of a loved one? Will we learn to live with less or will we go back to mindless consumption? Will we hoard because we care for our immediate tribe, or will we leave things on the shelf to keep our end of the social contract? Will we fight for a more equal and just society or will we regress to our inequitable status quo? Will we cede our truculent control over our planet or continue to believe we are superior beings? Only time will tell what this moment in history will come to mean, but how we come out of it and how we change our lifestyles today will be the stories we will tell.
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