Saturday, April 4, 2020

Life in the Times of Corona

Sharing an insightful article by erudite Naval Scholar Srikant Kesnur (with permission of the author)


One day, some day, when (when?) it is all over, tales will be told, stories written, movies made about this phenomenon that took hold of our lives and changed the world forever. Hashtag ‘life in the times of corona’ will trend, it will go viral and literature on it will become a pandemic (ok, bad joke). But that’s still in the future. What about the here and now? When almost all of humankind is locked in a mortal combat with a micro-organism.

It was said that black swan events happen ever so rarely – maybe once in a lifetime if one is ‘lucky’. And yet, in the last thirty years we have seen three such cataclysmic developments. First, about three decades ago, when we saw the ‘fall of the wall’ and the collapse of communism. It changed the world that we had known all along. As young people, in early twenties we welcomed the end of several autocracies and dreamt of a new order that would be kinder and better. 

Then, two decades ago we saw ‘the fall of twin towers’ and the ‘war on terror’. New words and phrases entered our lexicon, countries and coalitions were now ‘fighting adverbs’, in the memorable words of one author. Again, the world around and about us changed. India had always seen different facets of terrorism, now the rest of the globe was witnessing them first hand.

But what about this? The earlier two events were geo politics related – they held us in thrall but it was a terrain that many of us were comfortable with. And they did not seem to affect the ‘common man’ so much. After all, it was argued, why would the aam aadmi in India or Wanjiku in Kenya worry much about what happened in Romania? Some others may also include the financial meltdown of 2008 and the computer/IT/social media revolution as other seminal events of last three decades. Possibly, they are right. Arguably, the world bounced back from the Lehmann brothers induced crisis and the IT/social media revolution is still ongoing and unfolding in a spectacular manner. Also, while being disruptive to the extreme, developments in the field of IT and media have been viewed as largely beneficial to humankind.

COVID 19 is unlike anything we have seen or known. An unseen microbe that is terrifying us. As a Sailor in my unit said the other day, with an earthy insight, ‘Sir, whether it’s a man eating tiger or mad elephant, a bullet or missile, we at least know what is the danger, where it is coming from. We may not see it but we can sense it”. We can, conceivably, have some barriers against a known and seen enemy. Here, it is invisible but seemingly ubiquitous. And, it is completely non-discriminatory in whom it chooses to attack.

Humankind has faced pandemics before and one may argue that this is not new. Maybe, some were prescient enough to even see this. The Spanish Flu of last century and Ebola of last decade are frequently cited as examples. But one was so last century and other afflicted the so called ‘dark continent’ or undeveloped areas where healthcare systems did not exist. On the contrary, in case of COVID 19, it began life in the second most powerful nation of the world, a rich country and an aspiring hegemon. It has hit nations in Western Europe, USA, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan – all first world nations with state of the art medical facilities. And everybody – medical experts, scientists, economists, epidemiologists, virologists, microbiologists, politicians – is clueless. There is no cure, no vaccine and this contagion spreads faster than anything known before and in a manner that affects every aspect of our daily existence.
If someone had waged a bet with you a year ago, that the world would come to a standstill, if someone had proclaimed a month ago that cities and countries would be in lockdown, if someone had said a fortnight ago that trains and buses and flights will cease to operate we would have laughed our guts off and sent the ROFL emoji. Who would have imagined at the beginning of the third decade of the third millennium that our response to a virus would be to ‘bring our lives to a grinding halt and turn our tails’? Modern, post-modern, globalisation, hi tech, state of the art all seem ironical, even meaningless, phrases in the face of this microbe monster. And arming ourselves with latest missiles, nukes, gadgets, and robots doesn’t seem to help one bit.

To be sure, as a pandemic it might still claim less lives than the previous ones. As someone illustrated with a graphic the other day, Covid 19 is still a small blip compared to even the Swine Flu of a decade ago or HIV/AIDS that’s an ongoing scourge. But I cannot recall any pandemic having this sort of impact, not merely on health but on global economy, global polity and other disciplines, as this one. Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari calls it ‘a global crisis…perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation’. India’s leading commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, early in the onset of the crisis, wrote of the many dimensions that could play out – nature of governments, privacy concerns, new modes of surveillance, the changing relationship between the citizen and the state. The Foreign Policy journal invited leading thinkers to give their views on a post Covid world order. Many experts have described it as humankind at war or atleast in a warlike situation. Several other articles wonder about the fate of political leaders handling this crisis during the next hustings. Implicit in all this is an acknowledgement that this event is an inflection point, a point which may be seen in future, as some suggest, as time before and after Covid. While that may be an exaggeration, this episode has brought out the stark reality that ‘history has still not ended’ and our enemies may not always be ideological.

But would a new world unfold after Covid. Frankly, I doubt if anyone knows. Covid shows us to be terrible at forecasting, so there is no reason why our predictions elsewhere should be correct. Yet that has not stopped us from imagining that world because we all are (or many of us imagine we are) futurologists of some sort. We reflect the sentiments of the American President and WW 2 General, Dwight Eisenhower who said “in preparing for battle I have found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable’. Thus, we plan for a future based on some dreams and hopes. In the same spirit, therefore, let me reflect or ruminate on what the future could be.  Unlike, many grey eminences who have mulled over the impact this event would have on globalisation, international relations, politics and culture, mine is an attempt to put together a few issues of ordinary human existence that have played out in the last few days.

The first of these relates to our relationship with nature and environment. Much commentary, both informed and uninformed, has hinted that this epidemic is an outcome of our environmental depredations, our excesses against nature and natural ecosystems of rivers, birds, animals, forests, soil and so on. It has been suggested that humankind had gone berserk and this was payback time. As one sardonic message said “we were the virus and Corona is the vaccine”. TV and video messages during the time of lockdowns suggest purer air quality, pristine waters, animals roaming more freely including in urban spaces, more bird songs and a process of ‘earth healing herself’. There is wistfulness about times long past when life was not so past faced and we had the time to appreciate our surroundings. Hence, this episode should (or could) serve as a wakeup call to all of us about our compact with nature. Will we see a benign world that is more caring about sustainable development? Will we see greater action on environmental issues – climate change for example? Will we go easy on deforestation?

Or is this all ersatz posturing? Will it be return to status quo? There are also a couple of uncomfortable questions qua the environment that this event throws up. While regular hand wash is advised (and good), will it result in huge wastage of water – a precious resource in itself? Can the poor and miserable afford this exercise when they don’t get decent water for cooking? Will this deprive the underclass further? What about issue of tissue paper and toilet paper – both come with huge environmental costs? Our TVs showed assorted celebrities demonstrating how to wash hands – with manicured faces next to designer sinks and continuous running water they looked obscene, as though mocking the poor. Soak, Rinse, Lather, Repeat may be a good formula for hands or clothes but is it also a colossal waste of natural resource? So is this designer environmentalism or will we see a kinder gentler new world? While the jury is out on that, we must be thankful that the subject of caring for our natural surroundings has received greater traction with this episode.

The second issue relates to social behaviour. Man is a social animal. In recent days he has been subject to a variety of new norms of behaviour – quarantine, social distancing, lockdown, Janata Curfew and so on. The instinct for self-preservation will enable some sort of temporary compliance. But is this is the harbinger of permanent behavioural change? By nature and character, most of us love company and seek assurance from a helping hand; touch and feel are important to us, embrace, hugs, kisses (the jhappi-pappi modes of expression) convey a lot. Beyond that, the need to laugh and cry together, to party and grieve together, to shake hands or clink glasses, to commiserate or communicate, mandate a group or set of people who are our fellow travellers in the journey of life. The real nuisance value of novel Corona virus is that it can spread so easily – by touch and by merely being in proximity. As the whatsapp meme goes ‘from saying god bless to a sneeze we now say oh my god’. So would this change our norms of social behaviour in future? Would we see less tactile means of greeting (to use the memorable phrase of noted commentator Swapan Dasgupta) or would we resort to saying “Love me? Stay away” as Maj Gen S Pachori, a senior respected friend, says in his blog. Or would we throw all caution to the winds and host ‘Corona parties’ as some people are reportedly doing in Europe and America. I, for one, cannot visualise human beings ploughing a lonely furrow eternally, however valid that is as the ultimate truth of our lives.

This brings us to the related third point. How does a human being handle solitude or loneliness or the physical act of quarantining and reducing the number of people he meets? While on the one hand, there are many views extolling the virtues of spending quality time with family, there are, on the other hand, enough memes and jokes about the horrors that happen when spouses or family members are thrown together for more time than they bargained. Manu Joseph, one of my favourite writers cheekily tweeted ‘spare a thought for all those having affairs’. The underlying thought beneath both themes is the acknowledgement that human beings are not very great at handling protracted periods of ‘relative isolation’ in whatever manner one qualifies the term. Inadvertently, this has resulted in some focus on host of issues - mental health, depression, geriatric care, looking after care givers and tips on how to handle time and relationships. Host of prescriptions have sprung up – from diaries of prisoners kept in solitary confinement to examples of POWs. People in ‘lonely’ professions or avocations have been sought for their advice and in that respect there is none better than my friend and young colleague and great national hero Abhilash Tomy who sailed around the world all alone and almost repeated the feat. Tomy summons an inner calm that many can’t easily claim to have; therefore, his experiences are worth listening to, especially the second time when he awaited rescue, lying with a broken back, on a dismasted vessel, in stormy seas for four days with characteristic phlegmatic resolve and extraordinary willpower. Do read his wonderful column in Hindustan Times of 29 Mar 20 for a masterclass in handling extreme isolation.

But I guess even Tomy can’t do much about the paranoia that this pandemic has induced. We have all been engulfed by a sense of panic bordering on foolishness. “Have I washed my hands for 20 secs or, my god, was it 18? Did I touch that surface with my left hand or right? What is the ph factor in a tomato? Will garlic and ginger save me? That sore throat, should I rush to the hospital? What if this newspaper is carrying germs? Was I more than one metre away when he sneezed? Did she cough in her hanky? Does my handwash have sufficient alcohol?” A variety of such questions that are a mix of suspicion, delusion and paranoia create artificial anxieties. I wonder if human beings have ever felt so vulnerable even in their own homes. It’s not just our inner OCDs coming to the fore; it is also the sum of all our fears surfacing. This paranoia also induces mood swings. Sometimes, we are depressed, conjuring up all doomsday scenarios. The media is not of much help – all sorts of dire predictions about millions and billions and hundreds of billions being affected are making the rounds. Bad news has a way of gaining more currency and, if they are unverified rumours, even more. On other days, we clutch at positive straws. 

Maybe, immunity of Indians is greater, perhaps the heat will beat the virus, spicy food will boost our chances, the virus strain is mutating into less vicious one in India and so forth. At the end of the day, we are none the wiser. Information overload drowns us.

So will the post Covid world see many of us behaving as the character Sheldon in ‘The Big Bang Theory’ does - insisting on insulating himself against all sort of germs and viruses. Will we see a more sanitised, sterilised, disinfectant obsessed world? Or will it be a difficult to sustain an artificial bubble? My bets are on the latter, but who knows.

The other dimension to social interaction is the broader one across class echelons as part of our many transactions and contracts. This is another domain affected by Covid 19. While the virus itself hits indiscriminately, greater share of the suffering is borne by the poor and weaker sections of society, as is often the case. The overwhelming narrative in India is that this is a disease that the rich imported through their travels and interactions and inflicted on the poor. Like most narratives, it lacks nuance and depth. However, like most clich├ęs there is a kernel of truth in this. For a long time, the poorer sections, the slum dwellers, the lowest strata seemed removed from the disease, despite shabby living conditions and abysmal standards of hygiene infrastructure. This was remarkable considering how most epidemics seem to usually originate from such quarters. However, lockdown and its economic consequences bring home not just the disproportionate share of suffering inflicted on them but also the human aspects of this tragedy, reflected in the long walk of the migrants. Also, it must be remembered that social distancing, hand washing, etc are privileges to which much of poor in India do not have access.

For middle and upper class India, the sudden deprivation of labour for assortment of services and manual jobs has meant a ‘back to basics’ existence and own share of ‘hardships’. The informal sector was India’s biggest employment generator and its temporary suspension has both political and social implications. Socially, it may have resulted in greater acknowledgement of the work done by the underclass and there are reports of many employers protecting salaries or going out of their way to help their staff. But, beyond this, the salutary effect has been the recognition of a whole lot of ‘ordinary’ professions and menial jobs and their importance in our lives

In a country that frequently seems besotted by shallow celebrities and artificial icons, by glamorous professions and glitzy middle class obsessions, would this reset some of the terms of engagement. Would we rewrite the compact between the elites and the ‘great unwashed’ in more equitable and benign manner? Would we be able to sustain the groundswell of sympathy and understanding that seem to have percolated among some of us? This would be an interesting space to look out for.

One of the fallouts of lockdown, for a whole lot of us at least, is the possibility of having time for self-introspection. There is now enough ‘me time’. The relation with oneself is an abiding theme of spirituality and religion (used generically) and I am not treading into that territory, though becoming more ‘spiritual’ should certainly be a welcome outcome. I am on the more grounded territory of time to contemplate the ‘hows and whys’ of our life. This is possibly the time to question some certitudes that we had internalised. ‘Are we chasing far too many glories and coveting far too many successes. Are our notions of these faux? Is it time to reset and reboot some buttons in life? Have I ticked my bucket list or am I still in thrall of the rat race? Should I think more of my health, diet and exercise? How do I navigate the rest of my life? Or am I overthinking the whole thing?

Just as earth needed time to heal, humans too needed time to repair. To reflect and ruminate. Since society and nation are but the aggregate of individuals, it may be possible to posit that even a tiny recalibration in a ‘positive’ direction can result in much common weal and public good.

One such example is our civic sense and public hygiene. As Indians, even the poorest are conscious of personal hygiene – it’s a part of our DNA. However, we falter terribly when we come to extending that to public spaces. Coughing or sneezing into a handkerchief is about the most basic forms of etiquette; we surely did not need Covid to tell us that. Spitting in public is detestable at all times and there is no elitism in suggesting that. For long, it was argued that Indians are not amenable to discipline of any kind. However, our behaviour, by and large, during lockdown suggests that it is possible for us to follow civic rules and subject ourselves to a code of conduct. Many commentators have advocated that the government, in fact, use this opportunity to bring (or enforce) behaviour change in public places. Without getting into that debate, it may be possible to cautiously predict that a post Covid India might place greater emphasis on public hygiene. The success of campaigns like ‘Swatcha Bharat’ and the reinvention of Surat, post plague many years ago, are pointers to the fact that we can do it. If that happens, it would mean that some good came out of this ‘mahamaari’.

Of course, it may be argued that lot of our debate and discussion on Covid, including this article, is ‘much ado nothing, an exercise in self-indulgence’. Some perspective is called for and early into the pandemic author Sandipan Deb had written a brilliant piece arguing that we were overhyping the danger and going crazy with our response. More recently, an article doping the rounds of social media by one Jaideep Verma suggest the same. If you overlook the political polemics in the second half of his article, he summons an impressive array of statistics to argue that we are being unnecessarily alarmist and panicky in our personal and social responses. Senior Journalist and commentator Shekhar Gupta (SG) suggested much the same in his ‘National Interest’ column last week.  These gentlemen have not rejected the need for normal precautions and prudent measures; it is just that they advocate a long term view. SG writes about a generation of people in India who have seen wars, terrorism, famine and drought and many other seemingly catastrophic events and how we have not merely overcome but emerged stronger after the event. It is also true that contemporary times (and contemporary mores and, arguably, current generation) have less tolerance for ambiguity, less idea of how to live with uncertainty. Perhaps a more relaxed, languid and positive outlook is the need of the hour, a ‘this too shall pass’ philosophy.

That is, possibly, a good way to pause this piece. While the drama is still unfolding, I have tried to examine the possible impact on environmental consciousness, social behaviour, social interaction, civic sense and personal journeys, of this new phenomenon. At the same time,  I remain aware of the need not to be over obsessed with this ‘damn thing’ and get on with life, welcoming the lockdown as an opportunity to enhance personal growth. 

Today, we are at the end of first week of the biggest lockdown in history. While there have been pin pricks plenty, several bad news and the tragedy of migrants, we have, on the whole, reasons to be cautiously, very cautiously, optimistic. For those who feel that lots more could be done, for those who wish to see more concrete action let us note what author Derek Thompson wrote in, few days ago. He says “In the fog of pandemic, action must come before perfect information….but leaders should be humble, and citizens must be patient, about the fact that no single metric is gospel right now’.

One reason for the optimism is the way the nation has come together. They say a crisis shows much about a country or society. This pandemic has seen several acts of individual courage and institutional resolve. Whether it is development of cheap test kits or flying back our countrymen struck at different places, whether it is acts of charity by the rich and not so rich or the running of community langars we need to applaud several good stories. A long list of people need to be lauded - MEA staff, Air India crew, police, sanitation karmacharis, media, pharmacists, others maintaining essential supplies (from shops to banks to fuel to financial services to textiles), Armed Forces and CAPF and above all the doctors, nurses, paramedics and health workers. This is not a perfunctory hat tip; these positive stories can be the template for a resurgent India. For the country the size of India, with all our argumentative debates and infrastructural constraints, with our heterogeneity and Gini coefficient, these examples could provide the push and momentum needed to come out of this relatively less traumatised. We could become a model for the world in the way we overcome this, as our Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale brought out in a thought provoking article last week.

Just as I am finishing this, a typical social media message announces that by keeping people off road Corona has saved more lives than it has taken because India’s normal daily accident rate is higher than Covid hit rate. It’s a grim way to look for a silver lining but this is a good time to search for the good, bad and ugly in our lives. If we can disinfect our way through that, the post Covid world may just be a new beginning.

Srikant Kesnur
31 March 2020 

(The author is a Naval Scholar) 

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