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Covid-19: The international year of one-arm distance

The coronavirus pandemic is unique; most of us have never seen the unrolling of a human disaster that requires us to maintain distance, to fold into our personal caves, to not reach out

Those thinking of the common good are likely to come out of this unprecedented disaster better (and less bitter). Credit: Getty Images
Those thinking of the common good are likely to come out of this unprecedented disaster better (and less bitter). Credit: Getty Images

In February, I began following a Twitter handle called Calendar of Cancelled Events. This account is keeping track of the inevitable cancellation of talks, performances and film screenings of anything considered remotely “controversial". At that moment the account had a pleasant, defamilarizing effect, reminding us not to give up on freedom of speech. That was then. Before coronavirus came along and cancelled everything. Before coronavirus defamilarized everything.

Many of us have dealt with our share of disasters. Perhaps it was the tsunami or an earthquake. Perhaps you have lived through one or more pogrom. Or you may have seen chronic illness or sudden death in your household. You may have been mildly shaken or completely devastated. Most of these losses would have had a historical precedent. We may not know how to explain what it feels like to lose your wife or child or home or even country. But we do know that we are not the first or the last or the only ones to suffer thus. We do know that when we can, we should reach out and perhaps a hand will reach out to you too. We know. We hope for the fulfilment of this social contract. So we raise funds and collect clothes and send boxes of sanitary napkins. Or we call those in mourning and make awkward conversation. But in my lifetime I have never seen the unrolling of a human disaster that requires us to maintain distance, to fold into our personal caves. As opposed to the familiar model of at least a temporary bundling of camaraderie, shared resources and altruism.

Never have I seen a situation where a 65-year-old acquaintance with rheumatoid arthritis (and hence a compromised immune system) tells me that she is going to have to keep physical distance from her son for the foreseeable future. Where a 40-year-old acquaintance is begging her feuding uncle to escort her father from hospital to home in Tamil Nadu because the bus ride across state lines may give him something that might kill him. Where a church a couple of kilometres from home apparently has told its congregation to stay at home.

My acquaintance plans to stay across the room from her son as long as his corporate overlords in another continent insist that he come to work every day. How long must we stay in our caves? As leaked documents have revealed, the UK government secretly believes that this pandemic will last until the spring of 2021, with as many as 7.9 million people being hospitalized.

By the time this column goes into print, Covid-19 numbers may have scaled up further. According to several news reports and first-person accounts on social media of recent travellers, our state and Central governments had not initially tested those who had returned from high-risk nations such as Italy, forget the non-obvious links in the chain. A week from now, the ministers who went to large weddings may rue the day they hoped it would be business as usual.

Because nothing looks like it’s going to be business as usual for a while. In some ways the pandemic is showing up the ridiculousness of what is considered mandatory. Famously draconian and petty rules like the amount of liquids you can carry in hand baggage on a flight are being dumped now that everyone would like everyone else bathed in hand sanitizer. Why do children in class II need exams to be promoted? Why do we need a thousand people at weddings? Why do organizations and our feudal households not give everyone as much paid sick leave as they need? Do management consultants need to fly so much?

What will happen to us all in this International Year of One-Arm Distance? Because none of us will be quite the same after this passes. Whenever it passes.

In my household one morning this week, there was nothing to do but talk about coronavirus and meditate on social distancing. How were the adults to focus on work? How were the children to focus on play? Perhaps this was the time to walk around our elderly Bengaluru neighbourhood and take in the historical landmarks. I cracked open the relevant page of a guided-walks book. The chapter about my neighbourhood began with the phrase, “The plague that led to the expansion of the city in the north and the south…" Periodically, the chapter talked about how the local architecture was designed in the 19th century to be plague-proof. No getting away from end times apparently. When I read the phrase “plague riots", I stopped. Already, news of panic-buying and gross stigmatizing of those who were ill have started percolating our worlds. I didn’t need to read about historical cruelties.

In the children’s book Gajapati Kulapati, the eponymous elephant catches a cold. He sneezes enormously and his sneeze knocks over the banana seller who in turn knocks over the postman who scares the cow. In the happy universe of this book, the village sees that it is in everyone’s best interests to build Gajapati a nice warm shed to prevent further colds. Communities that have already been thinking hard of the public interest and common good are likely to come out of this unprecedented disaster better (and less bitter). And the same will be the case for individuals. As author Octavia Butler wrote, “Taking care of other people can be a good cure for nightmares like yours." We can and must find ways to share a bowl of khichdi at one-arm-distance.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

Twitter: @chasingiamb

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