Adapting, adjusting and evolving with a virus

Image Courtesy: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

“He remembers those vanishing years. The past is something he could see but not touch, as though looking through a dusty window pane. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct” —In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai.

How difficult is it to imagine a Coronavirus-free post-COVID world from where we are? Perhaps as difficult as it would have been to imagine the consequences of a lockdown on New Year’s Eve on 31st December 2019 — a few months ago! It would have required some calibrated sci-fi imagination, along with some poetic liberty, some artistic freedom to describe the deserted roads of a metropolis with a population upwards of twenty million. 

Public places are devoid of the public. Desolate malls, sealed theatres, barren flea-markets, inactive delivery systems, empty Amazon carts, restricted supplies—as if some bizarre evil force has suddenly hit the brakes on the steady wheel of desirable consumption. Images of commodities can be seen, but they cannot be ordered or delivered.

Every individual is a potential threat or a carrier, desperately trying to hide behind a mask, or compulsively and rigorously sanitising their exposed selves. Masks matter more than the brand-tags that used to adorn our bodies and define our identities. In the city of masked men and women, as if some implausible menace has destroyed the sense of normalcy and realigned our perceptions, we are being made to renounce some basic assumptions about socialisation, material possessions and their pompous display.

With factories shut, assembly-lines jammed, flights grounded, trains halted, buses barred, state borders sealed and trucks stranded, there is a termination of basic human movement. We are amidst a utopian standstill, as never experienced before. Only the emigrant is still on the move—long-marching all the way home with maximum uncertainty. The backbone of the economy and export has collapsed. The unorganised sector seems more disorganised than ever before. 

Uncertainty—the biggest enemy of civilisation—is the new order. Control—the singular agenda of science—is under severe threat. Any ‘body’ could be infected. Any ‘body’ could infect another’s body. Any body could shelter the infection without showing any symptoms. Any body could be hospitalised and be cured. Any ‘body’ could live; and any ‘body’ could die. There’s no kind of guarantee for bodies across the world. 

Amidst the pandemic, us privileged few, with safe access to self-quarantine, packed fridges and high-speed internet have organised the home-work we must do. We have formatted our everyday life, and conveniently adjusted to a prolonged home-stay. No amount of money, promotion and pestering could have bought or brought anyone such an extended sabbatical. 

Intercontinental calls, meetings and conferences involving large numbers of participants are possible through the internet. Dollars on travel, accommodation and food are being saved by the multimillion. There is a realisation that much of the work in the organised sector that involves soft-skills is possible to do from home. For all you know, the work operated from the comfort zones of drawing rooms with attached kitchens and dining rooms may increase efficiency and productivity. After all, the domestic set-up offers a lot more flexibility. Also, a lot of time, energy, anxiety and money is saved as we don’t have to drive to work. Corporations and organisation may finally abandon the age-old colonial notion that work requires the physical presence of workers in their cubicles, and in the process, save billions on building and maintaining infrastructure. Meetings and briefings that happened in the boss’s cabin can easily and effortlessly take place over con-calls. 

What a life—devoid of travel, traffic, toxic air-inhalation, and weekends. Friday nights and Monday hiccups seem like syndromes from a bygone era. Alcoholic bodies and brains are getting ‘cleansed’ too. Rivers and the skies have retrieved their original hues. While more stars are visible over the parliament sky—domestic helps, cooks, bais, all have been debarred from entering our social lives. Household work is no longer a paid job, nor an outsourced service. Some of us are learning the task and trouble of cooking, cleaning, dusting, washing, watering, arranging, tutoring, etc. Some of us are revisiting the lost habit of doing things ourselves. Who could have thought that a nasty virus could lead to some amount of domestic-swaraj? While there is no denying that there is more heavy dependence on women, who are being made to bear the enhanced domestic task-load. The sexist and unequal division of labour is manifesting behind the curtains under social distancing. 

Work-from-home has come with a compulsion to spend more time at home with spouses, lovers and partners. Some are happy and others experiencing undiscovered compatibility issues. The pattern of seeing each other in-between work hours or after-hours has been thoroughly disturbed. Now couples have to tolerate each other at work and at home as they perform both office and household work. While sharing or evading that workload—the monotony of cohabitation is finding newer grounds to erupt, announce itself. Now you have to ‘make-it-work’ differently—all over again. Faraway lovers cannot meet. We don’t even know when they will, and what the impact of this prolonged physical distance would be on them. Possibly, physical distancing would have acquired a new meaning, had Covid struck us twenty years ago, in the absence of social media, when a democratised internet and multiple screens to remain hooked on to didn’t exist. 

And it is a disastrous time for those who had gotten used to app-mediated access and the excesses of casual intimacy. Suddenly a lot is not happening over coffee or beer. The broken back of the supply chain of easy access is for all to witness. Just like dormant commodities on an online platform, matches are visible, but not physically accessible. The casualness and spontaneity of touch is now troubled by the terrors of viral consequences, and this will remain so for months, if not years. The fate of app-mediated sexual promiscuity is as threatened as the fate of capitalism and consumerism. The ‘body’—the object of desire and pleasure is now an object of tremendous viral-fear. The flight of random carnal carnival has been grounded like the idle aircraft at an aerodrome. The fear of touch has taken over. This fear has replaced the thrill and amusement of an anticipated passionate move. 

It is time to reload, rethink, and wonder if things could be revived at all. 

If you regret these changes, it is a good time for you to be in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which is not just a year but a state of being, where everything is non-evolutionary: “Every passenger going to 2046 has the same intention. They want to recapture lost memories, because nothing ever changes in 2046.”

However, it is not easy to reach the utopian 2046 that signifies eternal stagnancy. And it is all the more difficult to return from there. 

Rather, stay in 2020 and learn to adapt, adjust and evolve.

First published in NewsClick
Sreedeep is a sociologist with Shiv Nadar University. Views are personal.