Every crisis, whether it is political (the 9/11 attack or the World Wars) or financial (the 2008 recession), leads to reshaping of society by affecting our consciousness in long-lasting ways. Ranging from how we travel, conduct our interpersonal relations, institutionalise ourselves according to the apparatus of security and surveillance, and adjust ourselves to the reconstructed socio-economic milieu.
Right now, the world is facing a health crisis of a global reach (COVID-19), which has started showing its societal ramifications within a very short span of time. While the whole world is trying to contain the virus transmission, the virus itself has contained/quarantined us in our homes. This has already started reorienting our relationship with the government, outside world, and even each other.
Now, after a long spell of quarantine, the obvious reverberations such as separation from loved ones, loss of freedom over going to public spaces, uncertainty, growing weariness over the status of the disease etc are making our experience of quarantine unpleasant.
Can we assume that the world will look past the differences while confronting this shared threat, which is not external, rather so internal that it is being ingrained within our own genome? Whether the world will realise it or not, COVID-19 is definitely presenting us with a formidable enemy that won’t have differentiated targeting. However, the crisis might also bestow us with fusion-like energy and an eccentricity of motive to do some good towards uniting the world.
Today, metaphors like “we are in a war mode, corroborated by emergency measures such as a complete lockdown,” “frontline duty — war-front synonymous with a thin line of separation between the virus and human,” “an obscured enemy (as of now, invincible too),” “corona warriors” etc have become associated with humanity’s fight against the virus.
The medical vocabulary is also being overshadowed by metaphors like “battling a virus”, “defence mechanisms against the virus”, “invasion of human genome” etc. Although the crisis certainly entails exceptional collective mobilisation, war-like metaphors shouldn’t be supplemented by real weapons and delineated by extreme violence, savagery, and mortality.
Also, it is no unknown or masked enemy (in fact, the pandemic has made us all masked beings) striving to play havoc with our lives. Rather, it’s a natural episode, which has been set in motion by modes of human interface in this globalised world. It has not been inflicted upon us by radical ideologues, leaders, or armed groups, but by a strain of a nanometre-size virus.
In conventional border management, a nation always strives for better technology to occlude tracts exposed to infiltrators. For example, we often come across news on protection of borders through installation of modern technologies like laser wall for border fencing. But, no one had imagined that after a century of the Spanish flu pandemic, a similar sort of global infiltration would again hit the human genome, permeating through complex border management across the globe.
In today’s world, whether it’s India, Pakistan, or the United States, most of the countries have long identified patriotism with armed forces. This is also reflected in an ever-increasing defence budget, military modernisation, and increasing dominance of arms in trade deals, mostly driven by widespread conflicts across the world.
However, in spite of so much technological sophistication in the weapons systems, for sure, we can’t shoot this virus. At the same time, those on the frontline in the war against the corona pandemic aren’t enlisted army men; they are our doctors and other medical staff, administrators, essential services providers etc. So, are we going to recognise their sacrifice as true patriotism, with the term “patriotism” broadening its horizons to recognise the sacrifice of all of them?
Perhaps, we will finally start comprehending patriotism more with the nurturing of health and life of our community, than with detonating someone somewhere. Perhaps, the de-militarisation of patriotism and love for our community will be one of the upshots to come out of this dreadful mess engendered by the pandemic.
With every crisis, some hidden truths come out. The 9/11 attack made the US citizens realise that they are vulnerable to tragedies they thought only happened in distant land. The 2008 financial crisis came with the lesson that calamities of the past, such as the economic meltdown of the Great Depression, can come back to us again. And once again, the past has come to haunt us and the spectre of the 1918 flu pandemic lies in front of us.
There’s a biological fact according to which we are born 100%, but we die as an alien. This is because a significant proportion of our body cells belongs to alien species like bacteria, fungi and virus. Although these alien species become part of our “self”, filling the gaps that might otherwise get filled by harmful pathogens (perhaps corona virus is also going to live within us forever as an alien), there is always risk susceptibility associated with these alien cells. The fact that these alien species are hosted by us is not a factor of our language, class or nationality.
Hence, rather than falling for postulates of sovereign nation-states (no matter how fortified their borders are) and autonomous souls, we have to learn to live in a world that is so interconnected that anything may go viral at any moment. And today, this virality is not associated with an image, a video, or any piece of information; corona and and the sphere of influence of its virality are not limited to the subject only. Conventional measures like border closures, travel restrictions and quarantine/social distancing can only give us a deceptive perception of safety.
The loss of equanimity or contentment of our daily life seems to be perdurable. We now know that being in touch with other people or things, or breathing the same air as them (as it could be a mode of transmission of the coronavirus in microscopic droplets) in confined space (i.e. not maintaining a safe distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing) can be risky.
How quickly this awareness of social distancing ebbs away will be different for different people, but it can never evanesce completely for anyone who has lived through this period. Let us see how it will get reflected in our “dress codes” and how we’ll cope with the “absence of human touch”.
Dress codes are symbolic constructions of socio-cultural norms, based on our class and cultural/religious identity, and also related to our attitude towards comfort at home and workplace. People are often shamed and slammed for wearing a dress that does not conform to the prevailing cultural norms (not a universal criterion).
For example, in recent times, celebrities like Priyanka Chopra, Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan have been a testimony to such incidents. However, today, one particular item being donned by everybody, not because of their adherence to socio-cultural norms, but because of a dominating nano-size virus is the mask. And this mask is now dominating the realm of fashion.
The most visible aspect of globalisation is the plenitude of fashion items sold by top fashion brands. Building upon creatively revised necessities, this multi-billion dollar fashion industry is propelled by reveries of sensual attributes, be it a sporty or a cool-attitude outlook. As fashion brands trumpet in luxurious, all-pervasive and aggressive marketing, is the same phenomenon going to work for marketing masks?
As we become used to donning the mask, is it going to become an individual fashion statement that should be a permanent fit in the hanging spaces of our wardrobe? Or will it just end up being a symbol of health or societal concern on a limited time scale? It will depend on the time period for which we are going to live with corona (perhaps also on the air pollution levels in the post-corona life). Fashion brands will start exploring this new way of life, imbuing masks with a sort of fashion sense that suits customers’ personal style.
The world is already going through a sort of adjustment to become better-suited to fight against the virus as far as socio-cultural and hygiene practices are concerned (giving handshakes a miss, maintaining a safe distance from other people, and being much more observant towards proper handwashing). With all prevalent modes of greetings like handshakes and hugs being relinquished, social greetings may now call for a new set of virus-proof greeting codes, like a hand on the heart, a head nod, or any other action that allows one to circumvent a direct touch.
‘In this regard, traditional Hindu greeting gesture of Namaste comes to my mind, perhaps best-suited for post-corona social codes. It also connotes a deeper significance than a simple ‘hi’ or ‘hello’, and represents the belief that there is a divine spark within each of us. Thus, the gesture of Namaste embodies the honour and reverence for that divine spark.
With prolonged social isolation becoming the new norm, it’s time to go over the psychological ramifications of deprivation of human touch. As a daily routine, we are attuned to varying intensities of intimate or affectionate physical touch whether it’s a handshake with a stranger/colleague or a hug from a friend. Now, with human touch becoming a scarce emotional engagement due to fear of ‘corona-touch,’ what can be the replacement for this ingrained configuration of ‘human touch’?
If we interpret the pre-corona touch as a ‘cis-form’, does a ‘trans-form’ exist where ‘human touch’ and ‘corona’ as functional groups can be on opposing sides of the humanity-chain (cis-trans isomerism)? How can we reoccupy or integrate our intimate space?
Being the first elemental aspect of emotional engagement (during the newborn period) and among our basic needs for human bonding, there can’t be an outright substitute for human touch. The touch of a trusted loved one can alleviate anxiety, calm an angry soul, or promote a sense of well-being without doing anything else. Hugs are the answer to everything. Being intimate as a specific feature of human bonding, can we approximate this human touch during the extended lockdown? To a certain extent, the answer is YES.
For example, objects with emotional and nostalgic value can mollify negative feelings like loneliness and anxiety, but at the same time, remind us that the past can drop around to see us once again. We can turn our collage creations into a personalised digital photo/video book to sort through memory bytes. We can make custom-designed gift boxes to store our gift cards and other tangible assets for a milestone moment to preserve memories. It can be the ultimate gift for our loved ones during this lockdown period and thus, we can explore the designing faculty of our mind.
Let us explore the ‘touch’ alternatives in long-distance relationships (certainly a version of lockdown). We can get back to the pre-corona time scale, to a much earlier time when our interactions were limited to text conversations and phone calls, and we were quite happy with that. We used to soothe all our emotions, such as stress, loneliness and frustration, through text messaging and phone calls.
After this came video communication, such as Skype, which was better than texting because of the nonverbal whispers unhitched in texting. There will be a nostalgic charm to revive those communication lines when we are locked down at different locations in the era of the corona-pandemic. There can’t be a better alternative to talking on the phone or uncovering the emotional subtexts than video calls, thus leading to not hanging up until early morning, when the breeze would hit your partner, and carving out the best moments in the relationship.
In the pre-corona period, while seeking out a romantic evening, couples used to make a reservation in restaurants. Now, how can we simulate in-person dates of pre-COVID-19? Couples can go for shared activities like escorting Skype into the kitchen, cook something together and then dine as though on a proper date. This virtual togetherness enkindles a perceived connection of the senses, enhancing the virtual romance quotient. Thus, this new self-isolating world has its own rooms to manoeuvre and couples can benefit from a little creativity in the realm of virtual dates.
Religions always underline the conquest of hope and life over fear. But, how can the celebration of religious faith take place in the time of corona when social distancing is the norm? A great challenge lies ahead in keeping the faith alive under the unpropitious conditions in the time of the nationwide lockdown.
For example, can Muslims celebrate without visiting mosques? Can Hindus celebrate without visiting temples or organising rallies for festivals like Ram Navami? Will people not seek blessings from their God to get relief from the corona pandemic? Is it possible to exhibit prudence over expositions of religious faiths? Is it possible to decentralise the practice of worship from religious places from home spaces?
Although there were few instances in which people gave a thumbs down to social distancing norms prescribed by the government (a shared trait across religions), all the religious masters have unanimously edified followers for observing adherence to social distancing norms.
The main attribute of the novel coronavirus is that it doesn’t show prejudice against socio-economic and religious status. Even though the current experience suggests that elderly and people with underlying health issues face an elevated risk of getting infected, the novel virus is impartial as far as the infection is concerned. Same applies to the current migrants’ crisis in India; the problem lies somewhere else and not with corona. But one absolute fact is that we can’t deal with this threat in a vacuum.
In this way, corona also provides a sort of practical biology class to super-spreaders of communal virus in this time of the corona pandemic. As we know, the human genome has millions of viral sequences assimilated into it, which also indicates that we have faced a significant number of epidemics in the past. And perhaps, it also gives hope that as in the past, this novel virus will also end up becoming a part of us.
In this confrontation with our common enemy, even our best efforts are less likely to make a difference if the constituents of our society don’t abide by their own social obligations. Perhaps, the novel coronavirus has arrived with an underlying message of our interconnected humanity. The nanosize virus has put the entire humanity into an existential crisis, but for sure, it won’t be the end of us.
The world has already survived earlier pandemics like the 1918 pandemic flu (one of the deadliest pandemics in human history) at a time when science and technology had not been explored to the extent it’s been explored today. But it will call for the kind of solidarity our individualist belief systems gainsays.
With the virus level is escalating in society, a little persuasion is required to alter religious ceremonies. With virologists still struggling to find a suitable corona vaccine, certifying certain limitations of science, people may start placing their faith in religion and perceiving their salvation in it.
Thus, while science will play a pivotal role in vanquishing the virus, it may entail traditional values and belief systems to come to grips with the devastation that the pandemic will leave behind. However, there is another paradigm that is emerging, in which scientific and religious resources can be deployed in an integrated way to tackle significant human problems.
For example, integrated yoga practices are supposed to augment the immune system. In this regard, prominent religious leaders can issue opinions and guidance documents to their communities that reorient religious practices and proffer doctrinal perspectives on how traditional practices can be acclimatised to meet the response of COVID-19.
The storm of conspiracy theories and misinformation about the scale and origin of the pandemic that spurted over the internet presents a greater risk to global health and safety. Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news, generating panic and sowing distrust in society. For example, we all know how the unfolding of cases linked to the Tablighi Jamaat has been given an absurd rationale for small-minded bigots to be irresponsibly eloquent about their detestation for Muslims on social media.
In contrast, people need to be encouraged to do the right thing to control a disease or mitigate its impact. What role can social media play at a time when many of us are otherwise sequestered from one another? Conversations around the coronavirus on social media platforms can help us traverse through this crisis. These discussions are exemplifying how society is pondering and responding to the crisis.
Social media companies have to play a proactive role in disconnecting public from the misinformation being circulated, and foster attested and veritable information on the crisis, as this has the potential to create panic and derange social harmony. For example, as I said earlier, Islamophobia has been superimposed the coronavirus discourse in India. In this context, social media platforms are obligated towards shielding the public discourse from such fracases as we steer through this unexampled healthcare crisis.
Now, let us consider the role of social media in the pre-corona period in which we used to criticise it. The common thread among all the criticism was that although social media provided users with a means to connect or reconnect with networks of online friends and group memberships, to some extent, it does exemplify the very opposite (‘disconnect’).
We always lay stress on not confusing social media communication with authentic social communication in real-life situations. We were told to keep in mind that although such platforms can provide us with a wide friendship network, mostly, they lack the depth of real-life relationships and provoke a false sense of connection. Now, with social distancing being the new norm, will we strive to recreate a fabricated and highly-elaborate digital identity, intimacy and sociability, instead of constructing an identity lived through authentic relationships in real life (in a way dismantling the non-digital space)?
Recently, the World Health Organisation said that the virus is here to stay and we have to come to terms with the virus. The nature and extent of anxiety associated with the coronavirus is steadily giving rise to severe anxiety. There is a basic psychological conflict at play resulting from contrasting intuitions of self-preservation and the cognisance that death has become inevitable and, to some extent, unpredictable (especially for elderly people).
When a person is overlooked with extreme mortal dangers, the most fundamental of all human yearning is to find a “meaning of life” to stand up to the “trauma of facing existential crisis.” Most of the times, taking the edge off the anxiety is guided by embosoming cultural beliefs or symbolic systems that stand in for repulsing biological verity with more enduring forms of meaning and value.
In this context, let us consider a recent phenomenon associated with the lockdown in India, i.e. re-telecast of mythological epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. With these shows storming television clinching a loyal audience, the question arises regarding the factors that prompted the wave of the mythological genre. People have always depended on mythology and various aspects of religion to calm their nerves.
In this time of unprecedented uncertainty, when social stress, anxiety and rootlessness are soaring in the mind, emotional management is being sought in terms of reconnecting with our cultural past and taking away something meaningful out, apart from proving to be a perfect reminder of the golden times, immense value system edified in mythological epics is providing the base for an oasis of serenity and has life lessons for everyone. The chronicles of these mythological shows grill us to pin our faith on a higher power. If we have our trust in this higher power, everyone would have their heart set on embracing the hope that life will change sooner rather than later.