As COVID-19 pushes us to a life of social seclusion, a look at what this lifestyle change means for us
POULOMI BANERJEE AND NATASHA REGO
It would seem like a dream come true. Weeks of family time, with no office or school to disrupt the togetherness. Except that 39-year-old Gurgaon-based techie, Niranjan Singh Manohar and his wife, Shalini, are running out of ways to keep their younger daughter, Vedika, engaged. “Usually, over the weekends we take Pari [the couple’s elder daughter, aged 10] and Vedika [who is five] on day trips. But now, because of the coronavirus scare, travelling is not advisable, especially for the kids,” he says.
School is closed – Vedika’s class graduation ceremony, to celebrate her promotion from kindergarten to Class 1, was cancelled. “Now she is home and can’t play with her dolls all day,” he says. “I am afraid, she will get away with more than her usual quota of screen time.”
In the last few weeks, as the number of coronavirus positive cases and deaths have continued to rise across the globe, social isolation has become the new lifestyle with schools and colleges closing and offices encouraging employees to work from home. Meetings have been cancelled (or moved to the virtual space), travel plans put on hold, film releases pushed back and places of worship closed. Gyms, clubs, swimming pools – all shared social spaces – are either being closed down or seeing a low turn out.
Those who are venturing out are clearly under strain to stay protected. “I travel from Virar to Dadar [in Mumbai] every day. Some people are now wearing masks on the trains,” says Krishna Prasad, 30, a journalist. “And I have observed that if someone coughs or sneezes, the passenger next to him gets up from the seat.”
Narinder Kumar, co-founder and COO of the digital services company To The New (with its headquarters in NOIDA), returned from a work trip to the US and Australia on March 6. “When I left on February 29, there were as yet no health advisories on travelling abroad,” he says. When he returned, however, the situation had escalated considerably, and even though he did not show any symptoms of the disease, Kumar decided to self-isolate for 14 days. “I have been working from home since. Even at home, I am using a separate toilet and room to ensure that I don’t pass on the virus to my family, in case I am infected,” says Kumar.
For those putting off planned travels, losses are both financial and emotional. Parul Khanna, chief marketing officer of a travel and hospitality start-up, cancelled a holiday to Greece that was to have started on March 13. The money she lost on the trip, made matters worse. “The hotels we had booked in Greece did not return the money, even though we explained that we were cancelling because of the pandemic,” she says.
What Ayshwarya G, 28, a media consultant who was planning a trip to Bhutan in April, lost meanwhile wasn’t money, but time spent in planning and researching everything.
More at risk
The situation is especially critical for those with older people and children at home, for both are more vulnerable and need care and attention.
“I don’t touch my face; I use a mask when I go out. I’m careful about sanitising and not touching outside surfaces because I live with my grandparents and they’re 87 and 92,” says Ayshwarya.
Older people are even putting off hospital visits for routine as well as follow-up checks. Parents who would normally enrol their children for activity classes during the holidays, are now left without that option. Where schools are organising virtual classes, or allotting assignments to be finished during the time at home, it falls upon the parents to ensure that the kids stay up to date with their projects.
Those working from home have the additional task of explaining to their kids why they may not be available through the day, even though they are physically in the house. “I have two sons. One is 16, the other 10 years old. I have always had the scope to work from home sometimes, but now that I am doing it regularly, I am having to explain to my younger son that there are hours in which I am working – even though I am at home – and those in which I am free,” says a Google employee based in Gurgaon, who doesn’t want to be named. “It is the same with my colleagues. At times we have kids popping up in the background during video calls,” she says with a laugh.
It needs a little getting used to – this new normal, where the home is work, personal and social space. Many people are drawing comfort from the time they are spending with their loved ones.
Others are trying to remain positive by doing things that they normally wouldn’t have had time to. Travel writer, Karishma Kirpalani, says she’s already been grounded longer than in several years. “My trip to Egypt in the first half of March has been cancelled and I’ve also had to cancel travel to IPL locations such as Punjab and Rajasthan with my husband, who partners with the Indian Premier League,” she says. She is using the time thus gained “on ourselves. I’m using it to focus on writing, revamping the blog and planning some videos.”
Director of interior design and technical services at Taj Hotels in Mumbai, Reema Diwan, 39, who’s been self-isolating and working from home believes “it’s nature’s way of forcing us to slow down”.
Not everyone is able to see it that way, though. The uncertainty surrounding the extent of the problem, and the isolation, is making many people angry, irritable, anxious. “Those with prior mental health problems are especially vulnerable. I have received complaints of people losing sleep and stress levels being high. Those who had mild OCD are showing a surge in symptoms,” says Sapna Bangar, psychiatrist and head of Mpower – The Centre, a mental health organisation in Mumbai. Children may be more disturbed because they don’t completely understand the situation, but can feel that something is wrong. Bangar suggests that parents share with them the illustrated explainers released by the World Health Organisation. In a crisis, and this is one, relationships too may show signs of fray.
Help at hand
For many, technology is helping keep at bay the feeling of being cut off, stopping them from getting cabin fever. For those working from home, there are always video calls.
According to an article in The New Yorker, in China, nightclubs that had to close their doors turned to virtual cloud-clubbing, where viewers could watch DJ sets on streaming platforms and even send messages to be read out. A new reality show ‘Home Karaoke Station’ had singers performing from their homes, even as they were in self-quarantine. Gyms offered online workout classes. In Iran, doctors and nurses participated in a coronavirus dance challenge, “posting videos of themselves dancing in hazmat suits”.
In India, actors like Deepika Padukone, have taken the WHO’s Safe Hands Challenge and a video of a cops from Kerala doing a ‘hand washing dance’ has gone viral.
Having a routine also helps, says psychiatrist at CIMBS, a psychiatric mental healthcare centre in Delhi, Sunil Mittal. Narinder Kumar, for example, still wakes up at his usual time and even dresses for work, before settling down to answering his mails and doing his meetings over phone and videochat, from home.
But the flipside of working from home, at least for some, is the difficulty in drawing the line between personal and professional time. “You actually end up working longer. And even clients or colleagues who would usually be apologetic about calling you post office hours, now don’t think of it as a transgression into your me time, because you are at home anyway,” says Manohar.
In a post-pandemic society
A fortnight? A month? A couple of months? Several months? It is not clear how long it will take for us to defeat the boogie of coronavirus completely. How will the time we spend in isolation in the meantime impact us? Will it change our habits, making us more introverted than we were before COVID-19 pushed us into our rooms?
An article in The New Yorker, states that “over time, the impact of the novel coronavirus may be so sweeping that it alters human rituals and behaviours that have evolved over millennia”. The article quotes professor of biological anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, Terrence Deacon, on the possibility of the handshake ceasing to be a form of greeting. “It could be. Behaviours are driven by the context. Shaking hands is about trust. If that behaviour passes on a deadly virus, then it affects our trust markers.”
The aftermath of the pandemic, as psychologist Geetanjali Kumar says, is the subject of future research. What most people admit, though, is that even after the authorities give people the go ahead to venture out, it may take time to pick up where they left off before the advent of the coronavirus.
“The seclusion was gradual, so must be the return to our usual social habits,” says psychiatrist Sapna Bangar. For those working from home, returning to office must be immediate, once that option is withdrawn. But casual socialising might take more time to pick up.
“The one thing that I hope this pandemic teaches us and that we remember even after the threat is over,” says psychiatrist Sunil Mittal, “is hygiene. In a country like India, with a dense population, respiratory hygiene (like covering your mouth while coughing), frequent washing of hands and not touching your face, may go a long way in containing the spread of many other infections.”