A Federal series on The Covid Year

The Federal revisits life under the tyrannical yoke of the novel coronavirus. Through a series of stories, we try to highlight the key features of the year that was spent battling the biggest threat to humanity since the Spanish Flu of 1918, understand what it has meant for Indians, and how it has helped us understand life around us better

Part 4

Other side of pandemic: Life lessons conveyed by corona zeitgeist

Uploaded 31 December, 2020

Vipul Mudgal

In the post-pandemic world, the globetrotter is the new suspect! After all the virus came from abroad, except perhaps in China. This meant that instead of envy, the jetsetter evokes suspicion. The aunt from Chicago, who earlier got to choose between nieces or nephews to stay with, is now going to the quarantine first. This has changed the traveller and the global travel sector forever.

In my Vande-Bharat (evacuation) flight from Washington DC to Delhi in May, fellow passengers looked petrified in an apologetic way. As if saying through their eyes something like ‘I don’t mean to be rude to you mate, but you look suspicious to me’. The smiles and frowns were concealed by the mask and the face shield. In the plane, one was careful about every person sitting on the next seat, which meant at least two rows to your left, right, front and back. Everyone had a travel toolkit with sanitisers, tissues, gloves and cough syrups. The paranoid had an extra PPE suit beside the one they came wearing.

The terminals, both at the departure and arrival, resembled ghost towns with bare duty-free counters and high fashion stores all boarded up. The scene is symptomatic of the current state of the travel trade which has changed beyond recognition. But the transformation runs across sectors, from health and education to media and governance, and everything in between. Some observations about what the post-pandemic zeitgeist has changed and how in our lives:

IThe smartphone is the redeemer!

Just when the gen-x parents were learning to keep children away from the gadgets, new tricks were needed to do the opposite—to keep them hooked to virtual classes. The haves could afford iPads and earphones while running offices and schools from home—assuming that the Wi-Fi worked and the kids behaved. But for the have nots, the true saviour was the humble mobile. Never mind if kids had to take turns to attend classes on a single phone shared by a family of five. This has made the smartphone and the Wi-Fi essential public goods, fit to be subsidized and distributed through the ration shops. The number of households with access to at least one smartphone is still around 60 per cent leaving out a huge gap, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2020). The pandemic took the mobile revolution to a whole new level.

IIDidn’t we long for their company?

First time in decades, the new adults are at home indefinitely, adding to the parents’ pleasure and anxieties in equal measure! Some are back as the campuses are shut while others are home because there are no jobs to join or go back to. In the West, where young adults depart in late teens, this is happening for the first time since the Second World War. For the middle-class folks in India, the bittersweet departure comes a bit later, usually in the twenties. Now with grownups lazing around ad infinitum, both sides have to pass the test of patience in parenting and adolescence. According to ILO and ADB estimates, over 4 million Indians below the age of 30 have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and those aged 15 to 24 are the hardest hit. But then, one can always look at the positive side for solace, a la Man Ki Baat, the longest-running life-positive radio serial of its kind.

IVWhat’s life without a little help!

Middle-class Indians have shown that they can do without house help when living abroad. Rest of the time, we have folks happy for us to walk our dogs, wash our cars, press our clothes, or buy our groceries. A good maid is priceless but you don’t have to pay the price—blame thy neighbour (or mom in law) for not letting you ‘spoil the rate.’ Post lockdown, the housing societies were quick to ban the maid but the home truth prevailed sooner rather than later. The great Indian Babu who justly got paid for the lockdown was blasé about not compensating the ‘help’. We are like that only! India’s domestic sector, which employs over six crore people according to ILO, is not recognized in fact and law. Common Cause made a representation to the Union Home Minister when he excluded domestic workers from his decree that the migrants were to be paid half the wages for the lockdown. We are still waiting to hear from him.

VSedentary lifestyle without guilt!

Pandemic also has its losers and gainers—of weight! And in between the two are the maintainers who gained some for binging but lost some for doing the housework. But when cooking was a prime entertainment, besides eating, the times called for a soothing drink. The government cheered by opening the booze shops on priority over malls, gyms and grocery shops. This unusual turn of events created a whole new virtue of self-indulgence sans guilt. But, paradoxically, Facebook featured more weight-loss pictures from the pandemic period than ever before. What might have worked for those flaunting newfound figures was eating all meals at home, doing what they wanted to do forever—like regular yoga or keto dieting—or for venturing on long walks in search of relief from the oversupply of goodies.

VIIt’s time for the news, move over entertainment

The news on TV, in the times of pandemic, became the only circus in town. By dint of full creativity and some hard work, the news bulletins removed saas-bahu serials from the popularity charts. Once on top of the entertainment menu, the TV restored our nationalism as anchor after bold and beautiful anchor raised the flag and tore into villains. The stories had all the ingredients—inventive plots and subplots, a strong sense of suspense, friends and enemies, patriots and partisans. The longest-lasting thriller was about the suspicious foreigners of a minority sect who were caught ‘red-handed’ while trying to spread the virus in India. No amount of clarifications or fact-checking worked. The story enthralled us and stayed in our minds until all the suspects went home exonerated without a single charge proven against anyone. Who’s the ultimate winner? The media, and the friends of media, of course!

VIIHello OTT, the future of entertainment!

With all meetings and classes happening on Zoom, Skype or Webex, live streaming has come of age. So, can entertainment afford not to be available on tap? The OTT platforms spread far and wide during the pandemic, winning new subscribers and bypassing cable, broadcast and satellite platforms. Netflix, Hotstar or Amazon Prime are among 40 providers of video hosting and streaming services currently to a small section of viewers who can pay. But the OTT platforms are showing a glimpse of the future for the media and movie business. Finally, we are watching what the world is watching. But wait, the salacious, and sometimes politically audacious content had to catch the government’s eye. Some rules have recently been tweaked which means they may have to apply for prior certification or approval of OTT content.

VIICovid equalizer: Big brother is just like us!

True, the virus does not discriminate but the pandemic exposed the underbelly of every society in the world. Its victims are unduly high among the blacks and Hispanics in the US, immigrants in Europe, and homeless and have-nots in all geographies. Most vulnerable are those who live for the day, and come back to modest homes where social distancing is a luxury. Obviously, there are huge gaps in the health systems of countries, both developed and developing, in the wellbeing of the most vulnerable. The impact of the pandemic is worst in countries where violence due to internal conflicts has deprived huge sections of people of basic health services. The rising numbers of death figures in the West ironically come as a consolation to us if we are not able to control the disease more effectively. If they have started inoculations, we too have our vaccine in the pipeline.

Vipul Mudgal is the Director and Chief Executive of Common Cause, known for its high-impact PILs and work on police reforms. He also heads the Inclusive Media for Change project (www.im4change.org). He has been a Resident Editor at Hindustan Times, South Asia Editor at Asia Times, Bangkok, and a BBC journalist in London and Delhi

Part 4