Life is unpredictable. Anything and everything can change in the span of practically any timeframe, from a few minutes to hours to days to weeks. What better example to prove the point than the outbreak of Covid-19. From the time the first cases were reported on the last day of 2019 in Wuhan, China, to now, nearly 6 months later, the disease has assumed pandemic proportions and has affected almost every country in the world and every human being on the planet, directly or indirectly.
It is not the first time that humanity has seen such health crises. There have been several notable epidemics and pandemics in the past century. Each of them brought about economic, social, and sometimes, political upheavals. Such outbreaks of infectious disease had direct and consequential social impacts. As an example, extensive public panic in times of disease outbreaks can lead to swift population migration. According to a study, the 1994 outbreak of plague in Surat, while not of such large proportion as other epidemics, led about 5,00,000 people (around 20% of the city’s population) to flee their homes for possible safer places. Examples of certain communities facing social isolation being in some way linked to a contagious disease are also seen such as by Africans in Hong Kong SAR, China, for their presumed association with Ebola virus.
What is different is that the coronavirus pandemic is truly global. Based on the numbers affected, this has been likened to the Spanish flu which broke out in 1918, in the midst of World War I. Besides killing more than a 100 million people over a span of two years, the Spanish flu pandemic changed the world in many ways. Spanish Flu, along with WW-I, witnessed a sudden change in sex ratio in the world›s population with more men having died in these two devastations. This acted like a harbinger for more women joining the job markets. The US, in particular, witnessed a sudden surge of women professionals during the 1920s.
Spanish Flu, among other things, heralded the setting up of the Health Organization in 1922 by the League of Nations, with the aim to make equitable provision of health and social welfare and promote medical advancement. This organisation went on to become the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948. With severe criticism coming its way, due to its handling of the present Covid-19 outbreak, another major change is perhaps on its way. Several nations are now voting for reforms at the WHO.
Governments across the world have stepped into action implementing mitigating measures while assessing the situation both in their country and elsewhere around the world. India has been under a strict lockdown since March, like many others. As the world comes to terms with the disruption caused by this pandemic, which has not only caused immense death and suffering, new, almost dystopian reality is emerging where lives are being dictated by a virus for which humans are yet to find a cure. Reams have been written about its impact ranging from the human sufferings to economic distress to effects on the environment (some of which are positive). Memes, articles, blog posts are being churned out about life back in 2019 and in the post-corona days.
Things and activities considered normal and taken for granted have become a luxury. Did we think twice last year about hugging a friend or shaking hands with a colleague? Did we think twice about stepping out of our homes for a stroll or a walk to the nearby park or the neighborhood mall?
In India, in February end and early March, while we did read about horror stories coming to us from Wuhan, Italy and from the US, it did not hit us hard. It was not that easy for us to believe that in just a few weeks, we would also be locked down within the confines of our homes. The social and psychological effects of this sudden change in one’s life circumstances have been unprecedented. Life, as we knew it, is probably now passé.
Coming to terms with any kind of altered reality takes a while. Human beings go through a range of emotions while coping with any change. When the lockdown was suddenly imposed there was a sense of disbelief. Along with the disbelief was a fear — would we be able to get all the essential commodities? There was sudden panic buying, not of toilet rolls as seen in the West, but of essentials — pulses, rice, medicines. Sanitisers started flying off the shelves. Observing personal hygiene became the call of the time and was emphasised in every form of media. Washing hands, sanitising them and keeping ourselves safe from the virus was re-iterated in each and every possible way.
The first few days of the lockdown and maybe the first week was spent in a haze. People came to terms with this new state of being cooped up at home — either working from home or just staying home. With no domestic help at hand and the entire family together, there was an almost imposed family time. Chores were divided. Television, OTT platforms and of course social media became extremely important. To make lives easier and the confinement palatable, TV channels started airing reruns of popular old serials such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. The viewership of these serials proved their popularity among the masses once again! OTT platforms had their own charm for the younger lot — as they binged on popular movies, TV shows from the West and K-drama from the East (South Korea).
Home-bound, people started showcasing their baking and cooking skills. Social media channels such as Instagram and Facebook were inundated with displays of home-made baking and cooking efforts. Why, even celebrities were not immune to this — one got to read of Deepika Padukone’s baking skills and watch Diljit Dosanjh’s cooking skills. We also got sneak peeks into the daily lives of celebrities and into their homes as they were also completely home-bound. People tried to also use this time as constructively as possible as online classes and subscriptions to online skill development courses increased. There were beard challenges among men, who experimented with their look by growing beards and moustaches. Women had their grey hair challenges. In the absence of any hair salons, “go naturally grey” became their new mantra! Creative ventures such as writing challenges, makea-movie contests, book launches, book reading sessions, baking sessions — all online — came up, all with the purpose of keeping the confined well-heeled Indian engaged and happy.
While this does paint a hunky-dory situation on the face of it, it is certainly not the truth. By the time, Lockdown 1.0 ended and the number of Covid cases soared, it became clearer that we were in this fight for the long haul. The disease was lurking to threaten our complacent existence. The issues faced by the migrant labourers were too close for most people to ignore. While do-gooders amongst us tried to help these stuck migrant labour by cooking and distributing food, for the majority, the impending economic doom spelt by the virus added on to the already existing anxiety. With apps tracking and tracing the number of infected and casualties, with job cuts, with businesses shutting down, and this feeling of being extremely held up in homes induced major behavioral changes as well. Fear, anger, frustration and other negative feelings have been coming to the fore. As these took a toll and intensified, social and psychological issues have been reported. Domestic violence has risen rapidly — as some are reacting rather violently to this changed reality and their lack of control on their lives.
In this ever-changing scenario, as the world fights the virus and tries to resume the process of living and scientists are working hard to develop a vaccine, there is no certainty of what humanity is looking at, or how long this fight for survival is likely to be and when this will end. There is an overload of information, with new developments almost each day. There are no concrete answers to several questions.
However, one thing is clear, our lives have changed forever. Countries are slowly trying to return to a semblance of normalcy. Offices are slowly resuming, shops are opening up, sporting activities have resumed (without a live audience — the Deutsche Bundesliga is a case in point); people somehow are trying to get about in their lives — stepping out of their homes albeit with masks, gloves and sanitisers in tow.
A “new normal” is being created and developed as we speak. The ongoing pandemic will probably change the way the world functions in ways that are unthinkable right now. Only time can tell how!
Harini Srinivasan is an author, former civil servant and Editorial Advisor with Publications Division, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Anuradha Guru is an officer of the Indian Economic Service presently posted as Executive Director in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India. She is an alumnus of JNU and Delhi School of Economics.