THE YEAR WE LEARNT DANCING — part 2/2

The first part of this article dealt with the mental turmoil and initial denial of this pandemic. And it can be read here.

V — Search for meaning

Politicians and Business leaders offer wild comparisons to WWII, but the argument lacks depth. While the war rhetoric helped to convey urgency, seriousness, and a sense of solidarity, it also raised anxiety, irrational behavior (remember stockpiling toilet rolls), and bigotry.

WWII had claimed over 60 million military and civilian lives over 5 long years; Covid losses are expected to be a fraction. During the war, factories worked non-stop; during the pandemic, factories were shut down altogether. WWII destroyed physical assets–houses, bridges, transport infrastructure, railway lines; Covid economic losses are through destruction of demand.

War logic applied solely to frontline Doctors, Nurses, and Police. This was a public health emergency, not war.

Yet, we were in it for a long haul. Feeling of anxiety, helplessness and grief were all over and one didn’t know the emotional fallout of this unsettling time. I had a few inexplicable outbursts with friends and family. Where will this end? When will we see kids, parents, and buddies? What happens to my investments, my travel plans… so on and so forth. Chips were down and we had to dig deep to find bits of positive energy in this anxiety swamp.

Covid was not a 100-meter dash; it was a long-distance haul. It was proving to be an existential challenge, an experiment in survival. We needed to break the cycle; the crisis was forcing us to seek meaning.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” — Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor

Our health–both physical and mental, is ultimately our own responsibility. So I cut down on social media negativity and those worthless debates. I cut back the 24x7 TV news consumption that’s biased for worst-case scenarios and sensationalism. Without access to the gym, we improvised by running the building’s stairwell and parking lot, YouTube classes, or app-based Yoga.

The last thing we needed right now was a mindset of mutual distancing, withdrawing in our own shells. We reoriented ourselves — Every hand that we didn’t shake became a phone call. Those friendly embraces we avoided became a verbal expression of warmth and concern for how we might help, should the need arise.

We created an online community of friends on Whatsapp and Zoom; we started reaching out to long-lost acquaintances and relatives and for a while, it felt good to share news and comfort others. We organized Whatsapp Antaksharis (song competitions), we participated in Zoom Iftaris. Sometimes, when all that didn’t succeed, I calmed the mind with music, reading books, or the ultimate opiate — binge-watching Netflix. But overall, this opportunity to give more, to be more: more attentive, more creative, more generous, more awake, made for a rich experience.

We celebrated my father’s 90th birthday online, with dozens of his friends sending gifts and A/V clips from all over the world to mark the occasion. Kids took off traveling across the country while holding their job in WFH mode. Few marriages got deferred, but a few got solemnized. A few of them occurred with a couple of friends present, while in others, couples’ own parents watched them from afar. One of our friends even took an online accreditation to solemnize his son’s wedding!

Yet the virus sneaked through home quarantines, past the masks and hand-sanitizers. In May, the first of our friends caught the virus. Over the months, dozens of friends, family, I, and my wife tested positive. Some faced the situation heads on. Others dithered to avoid social sanctions. Few stayed in denial ‘You know, this cough I always get this time of the year’ and paid heavily. Thankfully, all recovered, with different levels of fear and anxieties. Some friends suffered other trauma — they lost their dear ones and watched the last rites over Zoom or FB Live.

People found humor in stress, too. New lexicon emerged- “Covidiot” (someone ignoring public health advice), “Covideo party”(online parties via Zoom or Skype), “Covexit” (the strategy for exiting lockdown), “Blursday” (an unspecified day because of lockdown’s disorientating effect on time), “Zoombombing” (hijacking a Zoom video call), Sheeple (those easily influenced with latest conspiracy theory), Coronaspeck (coronavirus fat, German word for the fat deposited by weeks of stay-at-home grazing), Zumping (ending a relationship on Zoom call)!

Technology was a godsend that enabled this social glue, and one mused how we would have only played Ludo, Scrabble, or Hide & Seek all these months, had this happened a decade back? We learned to live with 2 pairs of jeans and 3 T-shirts, even daily shave was optional. Pandemic redefined what’s important and what’s superfluous.

Pursuit of Happiness, I found, is such a hackneyed, self-centered, American truism- Partying, Drinking, Retailing, Binge Watching are mere temporary distractions. Eastern philosophies are more kick-ass–‘Life is 10K joys and 10K sorrows.’

We tried to enjoy and suffer with equanimity. But that was easier said than done.

VI The New Normal

While day-to-day life seems to be on a ‘pause’, with nothing going on, some subterranean changes are speeding up below the surface. Not just in technology, these transformations cut across the role of religion in public life, forms of future education, the shape of print media… and so on.

We will wake up in 2022, to 2030. Somewhat grey, grizzled, and befuddled Rip Van Winkles.

“2 years’ worth of digital transformation has occurred in 2 months” — Satya Nadella, Microsoft, April 2020

Reset of public hygiene–Before the discovery of germs and viruses at the end of the 19th century, the use of a common toothbrush, or dinner utensils, shared beds for same-sex guests at places of lodgings was commonplace. Those discoveries gave rise to sanitary products, disinfectants, Listerine, cellophane, toiletry paper, etc.

Spanish Flu of 1918 created National Health Service in Western Europe. The Great Depression and WWII led to the ‘New Deal’ and the modern welfare state.

History informs us that momentous events bring about and expedite changes in society, politics, and culture. 9/11 and its aftermath brought about security gates at the shopping malls, X-Ray machines in the hotel, access controls in private buildings, locker boxes at tourist destinations, added to the cost of doing business, and detracted from the customer experience.

The present pandemic has again damaged trust in public hygiene of people and products–face masks and hand sanitizers are already essential accessory–sanitization tunnels and thermal cameras may not be far off. Going forward, Societies and organizations can expect formal proof of hygiene and current health status, broader sharing of personal health records. Many countries are already implementing Vaccination Passports. Will the governments, going forward, allocate more resources to health and the environment?

State usurps more power — 9/11 led to government surveillance of citizens, wars, and occupation in the Middle East. 2008 financial crisis diverted taxpayers’ money to save financial institutions, at the cost of social services. Now governments are co-opting with privacy rights offenders like Facebook and Google, Telecom Companies, to facilitate contact tracing. China and Israel are selling policing software all over. And personal liberty debates have taken a backseat. The fear that post-crisis such as scale-up will just not be dismantled is real–once the state is vested with more power, it uses it beyond the original mandate of public safety.

Work from Home–technology showed the possibilities of remote working. Many tech firms announced ambitious plans to embrace WFH, in perpetuity, other industries need real face time! Governments like Dubai and the Caribbean are seeking the young WFH millennial to relocate. Tax authorities are nervous, trying to prevent arbitrage. Fancy commercial real estate occupancy/price has reduced, and demand for office & A-V equipment for home use has exploded. The debate is divided but WFH is likely to stay, in varying degrees like Flex, Full Remote, or Office Based.

Online classes and universities–Schools, Universities, and Colleges have gone online. International students’ admissions for 2021 have plummeted as parents question the efficacy of a $70K Zoom Semester. Some subjects (like Mathematics) prove more amenable to distance learning, while interaction-based areas (like humanities) less so. It’s cost-effective, flexible, and accessible, but it cannot mimic the on-site campus experience. There will be changes and shakeouts in education, but nobody can predict.

Future of music festivals, concerts, cinema halls, cruises where crowds congregate? Will disinfection booths and tunnels become normal entry points? Can one gain insights from the adult entertainment industry, which depends on close human contact, how it has dealt with AIDS/HIV for decades now?

VII — Hits and Misses

The world didn’t stop with Covid — In June, the USA burst into flames with the BLM movement, after George Floyd Killing. A film star committed suicide in India, launching a thousand conspiracy theories. In July, China stepped into Indian Territory, creating border tensions.

By December 2020, they ousted Trump from the White House, and approved a series of vaccinations for public inoculation. At last, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

USA and India take top positions for the number of infections with different approaches and politics.

The USA turns into the biggest Covid catastrophe, despite spending one of the highest per capita dollars on health and medicine. It all is coming down to one guy -Trump and his arrogance, denial of reality, and lack of a coherent medical policy. As elections approached, he desperately tried to pin the blame on WHO, China, and anyone in between. Indeed, he was not responsible for the pandemic, but the accountability for its mismanagement in the USA lies at his doorsteps. The ludicrous debate of personal freedom versus the need to wear masks in public validated that stupidity is universal.

“It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” — Donald Trump, again and again.

India, a country of 1.4 billion, paid the price for underinvestment in public health for the past seven decades. In the absence of resources, the government used self-delusion, bigotry, and xenophobia to gloss over its policy stumbles. In the process, it provided fodder to standup comedy, few tragic images, and some meme fests.

  • After the infamous “Thali Bajao, Diya Jalao” CTA, and sudden lockdown at four hours’ notice, the country witnessed the plight of poor immigrant laborers walk inter-state to their homes. Three BJP ruled states scrapped dozens of labor welfare laws, hoping companies leaving China will line up for investments; alas, nothing of that sort happened.

It’s not that it was all doom and gloom. State governments acted with speed and discretion–maintaining the food supply chain and ensuring last-mile delivery. Transfer of migrant labor Interstate was also well coordinated. Fatality rates remained low, compared to the USA and Western Europe. India continued to muddle through the crisis with a mix of fatalism, self-delusion, Jugaad, and perseverance.

UAE meanwhile stayed ahead of the curve through its tight administration and use of technology. However, inter-emirates politics of two sets of rules for Dubai and Abu Dhabi, remain an enigma.

VIII — We learn to dance

Now we are 12 months into it. Official statistics for the affected cases are 128 million, and 2.8 million deaths, as I write (March 2021). Multiple vaccines have arrived and mass inoculations are ramping up. Europe and India are going through the second wave, but unlike the last year, the responses are more nuanced and calibrated. People have witnessed the virus at close quarters, and they are willing to take on the fight.

“We live in time as well as space. Even the most familiar places retain an incredible capacity to surprise us. Something unexpected and undesired can always make its appearance when a plan is laid out, regardless of how familiar the circumstances. We may be cruising happily down the familiar road in our trusted automobile, but the time is passing, the brakes could fail. Friendly old dogs can still bite. Trusted friends can still deceive. New ideas can destroy comfortable certainties. Such things matter–they are real.” — Jordan Peterson.

The world as we knew before Covid is yet to return, and one doubts if it ever will, as the New Normal takes shape –

  • Mixed Economic Activity–stock markets are in a ‘monkey on Red Bull’ mode whilst the world struggles with the debris of last year’s destruction, where large swathes of the population living on the margin have been pushed below the poverty line. UAE population has shrunk by 9–10%, as people lost jobs and returned to their home country. Most developed world is expecting a ‘V’ shaped recovery and unemployment numbers are shrinking.

Looking back at the last 12 months, there were times of personal heartbreaks, when helplessness and fear ruled every other emotion. Like in April when NYC was reporting a death toll of over 900 per day, and administration could not keep up with burials — Parth was stuck in Manhattan, in a statewide lockdown. Or in June, when BLM protests erupted in San Francisco and riots broke out in the residential neighborhood, and students were baton-charged in peaceful protest rallies, Shreeya asked a simple question–“what kind of country is this?” Or in October, when my mother got Covid, despite parents living in self-quarantine for months, devoid of any social contact, or domestic help.

And yet they all faced the reality without delusion or denial, with poise and courage. And they kept their empathy — checking about our readiness, our contingency arrangements, not letting on their own vulnerability, anxiety, and fear that must’ve lurked just below the surface. They taught us a lesson in compassion and gratitude that I hold in awe.

We salute them, and everyone else who has sailed in their own boat, but with empathy and courage.

To paraphrase Tomas Pueyo once more–though the virus continues to hammer the world, the bruised humanity has also learned to dance.

PS–Though the memories above of ‘a year that wasn’t’ are personal, the experience of the pandemic has been universal. I would love to hear from you of any incident or life lesson that stands out. Please drop a comment.

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.