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 familytime, with no office or school to disrupt the togetherness. Except that39-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 couples elder daughter, aged 10]and Vedika [who is five] on day trips. But now, because of the coronavirusscare, travelling is not advisable, especially for the kids, he says.
School is closed Vedikas class graduation ceremony, tocelebrate her promotion from kindergarten to Class 1, was cancelled. Now sheis home and cant play with her dolls all day, he says. I am afraid, she willget away with more than her usual quota of screen time.
In the last few weeks, as the number of coronaviruspositive cases and deaths have continued to rise across the globe, socialisolation has become the new lifestyle with schools and colleges closing andoffices encouraging employees to work from home. Meetings have been cancelled(or moved to the virtual space), travel plans put on hold, film releases pushedback and places of worship closed. Gyms, clubs, swimming pools all sharedsocial spaces are either being closed down or seeing a low turn out.
Those who are venturing out are clearly under strain tostay protected. I travel from Virar to Dadar [in Mumbai] every day. Somepeople are now wearing masks on the trains, says Krishna Prasad, 30, ajournalist. And I have observed that if someone coughs or sneezes, thepassenger next to him gets up from the seat.
Narinder Kumar, co-founder and COO of the digitalservices company To The New (with its headquarters in NOIDA), returned from awork 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 hereturned, however, the situation had escalated considerably, and even though hedid not show any symptoms of the disease, Kumar decided to self-isolate for 14days. I have been working from home since. Even at home, I am using a separatetoilet and room to ensure that I dont pass on the virus to my family, in caseI am infected, says Kumar.
For those putting off planned travels, losses are bothfinancial and emotional. Parul Khanna, chief marketing officer of a travel andhospitality start-up, cancelled a holiday to Greece that was to have started onMarch 13. The money she lost on the trip, made matters worse. The hotels wehad booked in Greece did not return the money, even though we explained that wewere cancelling because of the pandemic, she says.
What Ayshwarya G, 28, a media consultant who was planninga trip to Bhutan in April, lost meanwhile wasnt money, but time spent inplanning and researching everything.
More at risk
The situation is especially critical for those with olderpeople and children at home, for both are more vulnerable and need care andattention.
I dont touch my face; I use a mask when I go out. Imcareful about sanitising and not touching outside surfaces because I live withmy grandparents and theyre 87 and 92, says Ayshwarya.
Older people are even putting off hospital visits forroutine as well as follow-up checks. Parents who would normally enrol theirchildren for activity classes during the holidays, are now left without thatoption. Where schools are organising virtual classes, or allotting assignmentsto be finished during the time at home, it falls upon the parents to ensurethat the kids stay up to date with their projects.
Those working from home have the additional task ofexplaining to their kids why they may not be available through the day, eventhough they are physically in the house. I have two sons. One is 16, the other10 years old. I have always had the scope to work from home sometimes, but nowthat I am doing it regularly, I am having to explain to my younger son thatthere are hours in which I am working even though I am at home and those inwhich I am free, says a Google employee based in Gurgaon, who doesnt want tobe named. It is the same with my colleagues. At times we have kids popping upin 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 drawingcomfort from the time they are spending with their loved ones.
Others are trying to remain positive by doing things thatthey normally wouldnt have had time to. Travel writer, Karishma Kirpalani,says shes already been grounded longer than in several years. My trip toEgypt in the first half of March has been cancelled and Ive also had to canceltravel to IPL locations such as Punjab and Rajasthan with my husband, whopartners with the Indian Premier League, she says. She is using the time thusgained on ourselves. Im using it to focus on writing, revamping the blog andplanning some videos.
Director of interior design and technical services at TajHotels in Mumbai, Reema Diwan, 39, whos been self-isolating and working fromhome believes its natures way of forcing us to slow down.
Not everyone is able to see it that way, though. Theuncertainty surrounding the extent of the problem, and the isolation, is makingmany people angry, irritable, anxious. Those with prior mental health problemsare especially vulnerable. I have received complaints of people losing sleepand stress levels being high. Those who had mild OCD are showing a surge insymptoms, says Sapna Bangar, psychiatrist and head of Mpower The Centre, amental health organisation in Mumbai. Children may be more disturbed becausethey dont completely understand the situation, but can feel that something iswrong. Bangar suggests that parents share with them the illustrated explainers releasedby the World Health Organisation. In a crisis, and this is one, relationshipstoo may show signs of fray.
Help at hand
For many, technology is helping keep at bay the feelingof being cut off, stopping them from getting cabin fever. For those workingfrom 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 messagesto be read out. A new reality show Home Karaoke Station had singersperforming from their homes, even as they were in self-quarantine. Gyms offeredonline workout classes. In Iran, doctors and nurses participated in acoronavirus dance challenge, posting videos of themselves dancing in hazmatsuits.
In India, actors like Deepika Padukone, have taken theWHOs Safe Hands Challenge and a video of a cops from Kerala doing a handwashing 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, beforesettling down to answering his mails and doing his meetings over phone andvideochat, 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 wouldusually be apologetic about calling you post office hours, now dont think ofit as a transgression into your me time, because you are at home anyway, saysManohar.
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 ofcoronavirus completely. How will the time we spend in isolation in the meantimeimpact us? Will it change our habits, making us more introverted than we werebefore COVID-19 pushed us into our rooms?
An article in The New Yorker, states that over time, theimpact of the novel coronavirus may be so sweeping that it alters human ritualsand behaviours that have evolved over millennia. The article quotes professorof biological anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, TerrenceDeacon, 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 abouttrust. If that behaviour passes on a deadly virus, then it affects our trustmarkers.
The aftermath of the pandemic, as psychologist GeetanjaliKumar 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, itmay take time to pick up where they left off before the advent of thecoronavirus.
The seclusion was gradual, so must be the return to ourusual social habits, says psychiatrist Sapna Bangar. For those working fromhome, returning to office must be immediate, once that option is withdrawn. Butcasual socialising might take more time to pick up.
The one thing that I hope this pandemic teaches us andthat we remember even after the threat is over, says psychiatrist SunilMittal, is hygiene. In a country like India, with a dense population,respiratory hygiene (like covering your mouth while coughing), frequent washingof hands and not touching your face, may go a long way in containing the spreadof many other infections.
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