DAVID RUNCIMAN WRITES in his book How Democracy Ends that ‘a common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power’. But we are in a phase, brief or otherwise, when corporate power is helpless and so is democracy, to an extent, and yet what is public good snatches the focus.
Any shutdown brings out behavioural changes and the Covid-19 one, too, has its share of these, prompting us to look deeper into ourselves. It is about public choices but they have a deeply personal impact. Will these new habits endure through normal times? Some of these may.
Public Health and Cleanliness: Over the past several decades the focus of our policymakers had shifted increasingly to the private sector, especially thanks to the need for research and focus on lifestyle diseases. Covid-19 proves that all governmental boasts are misplaced if they continue to claim a decline in communicable diseases. There has been a breakthrough from primitive times, of course, but challenges still abound.
Communities have become more hygiene-conscious to fight infections. Washing hands with soap, keeping door knobs clean, wearing masks and gloves while outdoors, social distancing, etcetera, could have lasting impact. Even SARS-scarred slumdwellers in Hong Kong now wear affordable masks when they have a cold, proving that poverty may not be a hindrance to hygiene and efforts to curtail infections among Indians either, both rich and poor.
Digitally Yours: In the absence of newspapers at the doorstep, news gathering is now at the fingertips, literally. Even senior citizens are quick to embrace it—of course, here we are talking with a class bias of those who can afford digital devices. It is a time of discovery for many who are going beyond Netflix, Hotspot, Amazon Prime and news-streaming sites on the phone and other devices, including TV, to stay connected and keep a semblance of normalcy.
People are moving from bingewatching and senseless surfing to hunting for new avenues online to keep themselves abreast of news, views and entertainment. The feeling of paper between the fingers might become less tempting. That musicians (TM Krishna, for example) are offering online concerts to raise money and bands are coming together to record remotely in their studios are only a few instances of adaptability.
Back to Hobbies: For the privileged classes accustomed to helps, who must now be sent on a paid holiday until the lockdown ends, even doing laundry and the dishes could be the new hobby. Cooking, or being experimental with your kitchen wisdom, is certainly a time-tested one. Other serious pursuits of dusting up the black boxes of your talent include the arts, musical instruments, yoga and taking singing from the bathroom to the living room. Being an aficionado also counts.
On a personal note, I have been gorging on a long-forgotten and spirituous cocktail of Miles Davis’ cover of ‘Stella by Starlight’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and Ray Charles’ ‘Georgia on My Mind’. Meanwhile, video streaming-immune bibliophiles, an endangered species, are making the most of the opportunity.
Responsible Hoarding: You cannot hoard judiciously, but can consume reasonably, as societies that remember great wars have always done. While it is a crime to empty shelves of soap, hand sanitiser and food, widespread uncertainty means you value what you have, even water and soap. Families pitch in to ensure optimal use of resources. Discipline and not taking everything for granted are things we are learning afresh.
All about the Family: It is ideally the time for bonding, but then, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. While in bondage, Nelson Mandela and his co-prisoners hated each other at times because they knew all about each other—as much as they loved each other. Likewise, a friend told me, it is the best of times and the worst of times for the family. Delegation of chores helps avoid bad blood. Patriarchal entitlement could crawl out like a monster occasionally, yet key takeaways include lessons in humility and being self-sufficient. Learning new skills (haircutting) is also on the cards.
Mental Health: Worries about job security and domestic pressures can throw lives out of gear. Sajootti, a friend from Sharjah in the UAE, tells me the mental agony can kill faster than the coronavirus, yet there is no medical help. Dr Kushal Jain, a psychiatrist in Delhi, tells me of addiction relapse, especially for heroin and alcohol, after his patients have run short of medical supplies due to logistic nightmares. In Kerala, a few who killed themselves did so for want of liquor.
The monotony of staying home, inability to meet friends and lovers in person, fear of contracting Covid-19, and relationships and dating are now grave challenges. Often, women tend to bear the brunt, especially of added workload at home or being imprisoned with abusive partners. Those who are already suffering from mental trauma see their conditions worsening.
There is multiple jeopardy for people who test positive for Covid-19 and are forced to be in hospital/home quarantine thanks to naming and shaming on social media and community WhatsApp groups (there are Covid-19 stickers outside the homes of most infected people). The good news is that some people are using the occasion to kick their vices, from smoking to drinking to junk food.
Empathy: Reconnecting with old friends and spending time with one’s children and pets come naturally now. Helping out older neighbours with groceries and other essential purchases and inquiring after their health brings to the fore the role of love in life, although it looks like a far cry in Indian politics with thousands of poor migrants stranded, beaten and humiliated. Your altruism wakes up. A break from life’s fast lane, with even mobility largely curtailed, also means you have the time to contemplate and give spirituality a chance. Some are already making quick progress.
Clearly, the lockdown many parts of the world are currently in evokes multiple emotions from rage (read China-bashing) to sympathy to indifference and despair. We also don’t tire of repeating the tale of revenge of nature, not only linked to human avarice, but also about our inhuman behaviour towards the environment. But one should be glad that it is prompting at least a good chunk of the human race to look deeper into themselves. Just as the world is going to change, this experience will change us, too—and more than just by a little.