‘Time travel’ to a post-COVID-19 society may hold many surprises

The article discusses the way we are likely to communicate in the future and its possible consequences

There will be a general reluctance to engage in physical touch-enabled interactions like handshakes or back pats due to germophobia or parasite stress. Representational image: iStock

The aim of this piece is not to scare you but to contemplate the possible future scenarios of COVID-19. I am sure, scientists will find a cure for COVID-19 and we will back to our regular lives – get the jobs and housemaids back and give a break to our beloved family members by going to the office. God forbid, if COVID-19 continues for the next six months and we are forced to stay at home and maintain status quo, what would happen?

What if we need to avoid touching another individual and keep a safe distance while interacting? Here is a sociological take on some essential aspects of our life. The article discusses the way we are likely to communicate, how and with whom, and its possible consequences.

On a broader level, we have segregated ourselves based on some markers — class, race, gender, religion, and caste. Once inside a big division, we bring in other refined ones — sub-class, sub-caste, and location etc. Some of the markers are natural — like race and gender. Some others are artificial like tilak on the forehead, wedding rings, clothes, surnames, and different rituals. COVID-19 shall become an additional marker.

First, human society will elevate the COVID-19-safe marker to a position of more importance. Those scientifically tested safe will have a marker. But what it will be? It could be a tattoo on the forehead, or a chip on your wrist that emits safety information to electronic readers. The existing social and physical institutions shall enable this marker in the name of human safety. For example, a place of worship will allow only those with COVID markers and the public marriage bureau will approve only when both parties are COVID-safe.

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In a parallel process, human society will adjust to the new way of life and will start forming new habits. A scientific study has found that average time for habit formation is 66 days, with smarter ones taking only 18 days. But some go all the way up to 254 days. These new habits infiltrate all forms of our lives.

To start with, the way we interact in social gatherings will be different. There will be a general reluctance to engage in physical touch-enabled interactions like handshakes or back pats due to germophobia or parasite stress. The spontaneity in physical interactions will be replaced by cautious touches. In other words, the avoidance rules or purdah system, which existed between a man and his daughter-in-law in a traditional Indian home (she will not sit with him in the same table for food) shall be extended to all in social gatherings. Probably, the role of full-face in personal communication may lose its importance to other cues like tone, hand gestures, and head movements. These changes shall be part of the new avoidance rules that would emerge.

The number of people with whom we interact will also change. Scientifically, human beings are capable of maintaining meaningful relationships with about 150 people. The closeness decreases as one spreads out to different layers. The first layer consists of five people and the last fourth layer is of hundred. These numbers might get altered due to self-control or government prescription. A government can enforce that only ten people can assemble at any given time. We will devise our ranking systems or rules to invite these ten people for gatherings. For example, a school classroom shall be a ten-seater or a guru can preach to only as many people at a time. All our physical structures shall evolve as a response to this new number.

If there are no restrictions on numbers but on the nature of the interaction, we will have venues that facilitate new forms of social gathering and communication. For instance, weddings will be held only in big open spaces which allow adequate physical distance between people. In an office meeting, people may see each other but will use only electronic devices to communicate to maintain social distancing.

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The social norms, which are the informal rules that govern people’s behaviour in communities, will undergo a few modifications. The communities that perceive higher stress of COVID-19 will become closed and stay conservative and traditional. It will resist interaction with other groups. The resistance can be as simple as avoiding drinking water from someone’s house to procreating. Though some Indians already practise this, it might become universal and strictly enforced.

The roles played by different members of the family might alter, especially in the home-care domain. Elder family members shall be segregated from the young children, resulting in alternative care practices. If the breadwinners’ occupations involve interaction with external people, they will have restricted mingling within the house. If the occupations are homebound, the household work responsibilities will be rearranged. Women might be burdened with more work in the short term, which could result in increased marital breakdowns. As the binding nature of marriage as an institution declines, new forms will emerge. Live-in relationships with or without children might become the new normal. There are possibilities of single-person households.

The present socialization of children shall change. As the children educate through virtual schools, the secondary socialization, in-person interactions with teachers, schoolmates, and other street playmates shall be minimal. Over-dependence on parents may limit the coping and other life skills of children. In future, children with weak life skills are likely to exhibit undesirable social behaviour. If the school and work life are different, children shall struggle to adapt to workplace expectations. Tertiary socialization skills like interacting with strangers online and conducting oneself in long virtual meetings shall emerge and are likely to be codified.

Different variants of the above shall arise due to differential cultural traits in diverse human societies. For instance, the Finnish treat ‘silence as gold and talking as silver’ and do not prefer small talk. They may take a shorter time to adapt to new social norms surrounding COVID-19 compared to Indians. Needless to say, the existing material resources gap shall amplify the differences in adaptation of new norms.

(P Vigneswara Ilavarasan is a professor at IIT Delhi)

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