Life in the time of coronavirus

Schools are closing. People are working from home. Travel plans are being cancelled and meetings - professional and personal - are being put on hold. As COVID-19 pushes us to a life of social seclusion, a look at what this lifestyle change means for us
Home is where the world is for most people now, even though their hearts may long to step out.(HT IMAGING/ANAND SINHA)
Home is where the world is for most people now, even though their hearts may long to step out.(HT IMAGING/ANAND SINHA)
Updated on Mar 19, 2020 07:57 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByPoulomi Banerjee and Natasha Rego

It would seem like a dream come true. Weeks of family time, with no office or school to disrupt the togetherness. Except that 39-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 couple’s elder daughter, aged 10] and Vedika [who is five] on day trips. But now, because of the coronavirus scare, travelling is not advisable, especially for the kids,” he says.

School is closed - Vedika’s class graduation ceremony, to celebrate her promotion from kindergarten to Class 1, was cancelled. “It was a major disappointment for the kids. Now she is home and can’t play with her dolls all day,” he says. “I am afraid, she will get away with more than her usual quota of screen time.”

In the last few weeks, as the number of coronavirus positive cases and deaths have continued to rise across the globe, social isolation has become the new lifestyle with schools and colleges closing and offices encouraging employees to work from home. Meetings have been cancelled (or moved to the virtual space), travel plans put on hold, film releases pushed back and places of worship closed. Gyms, clubs, swimming pools – all shared social spaces – are either being closed down or seeing a low turn out.

Those who are venturing out are clearly under strain to stay protected. “I travel from Virar to Dadar [in Mumbai] every day. Some people are now wearing masks on the trains,” says Krishna Prasad, 30, a journalist. “And I have observed that if someone coughs or sneezes, the passenger next to him gets up from the seat.”

Home is where the world is for most people now, even though their hearts may long to step out.

Home Alone

Narinder Kumar, co-founder and COO of the digital services company To The New (with its headquarters in NOIDA), returned from a work 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 he returned, however, the situation had escalated considerably, and even though he did not show any symptoms of the disease, Kumar decided to self-isolate himself for 14 days. “I have been working from home since. Even at home, I am using a separate toilet and room to ensure that I don’t pass on the virus to my family, in case I am infected,” says Kumar.

For those putting off planned travels, losses are both financial and emotional. Parul Khanna, chief marketing officer of a travel and hospitality start-up, cancelled a holiday to Greece that was to have started on March 13. “I am disappointed. I have just founded this start-up, so I haven’t taken leave in the last six months. I was really looking forward to this trip,” she says. The money she lost on the trip, made matters worse. “The hotels we had booked in Greece did not return the money, even though we explained that we were cancelling because of the pandemic,” she says.

What Ayshwarya G, 28, a media consultant who was planning a trip to Bhutan in April, lost wasn’t money, but time spent in planning and researching everything. “I always book refundable tickets and hotels,” she says. “But now I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to go...I feel suffocated if I can’t get out of the city every couple of months.”

The social isolation makes it more difficult to get over the disappointment, says Khanna, as there is little to divert one’s thoughts. “I was supposed to meet some friends over the weekend, but we are not sure whether to postpone it.”

More At Risk

The situation is especially critical for those with older people and children at home, for both are more vulnerable and need care and attention.

“I don’t touch my face; I use a mask when I go out. I’m careful about sanitising and not touching outside surfaces because I live with my grandparents and they’re 87 and 92,” says Ayshwarya.

Older people are even putting off hospital visits for routine as well as follow-up checks. “My father underwent surgery in December and has to go to the hospital for checkups,” says Vikram Bhatti, 43, a Mumbai-based filmmaker. “But he’s 73, so we’ve asked him to visit the hospital only at the end of the month.”

Parents who would normally enrol their children for activity classes during the holidays, are now left without that option. Where schools are organising virtual classes, or allotting assignments to be finished during the time at home, it falls upon the parents to ensure that the kids stay up to date with their projects.

Those working from home have the additional task of explaining to their kids why they may not be available through the day, even though they are physically in the house. “I have two sons. One is 16, the other 10 years old. I have always had the scope to work from home sometimes, but now that I am doing it regularly, I am having to explain to my younger son that there are hours in which I am working – even though I am at home – and those in which I am free,” says a Google employee based in Gurgaon, who doesn’t want to be named. “It is the same with my colleagues. At times we have kids popping up in the background during video calls,” she says with a laugh.

Hard Times

It needs a little getting used to – this new normal, where the home is work, personal and social space. Many people are drawing comfort from the time they are spending with their loved ones. The Google employee from Gurgaon is enjoying the increased time that she gets to be around her children.

Others are trying to remain positive by doing things that they normally wouldn’t have had time to. Travel writer, Karishma Kirpalani, says she’s already been grounded longer than in several years. “My trip to Egypt in the first half of March has been cancelled and I’ve also had to cancel travel to IPL locations such as Punjab and Rajasthan with my husband, who partners with the Indian Premier League,” she says. She is using the time thus gained “on ourselves. I’m using it to focus on writing, revamping the blog and planning some videos.”

Reema Diwan, 39, director of interior design and technical services at Taj Hotels in Mumbai, who’s been self-isolating and working from home believes “it’s nature’s way of forcing us to slow down”.

Not everyone is able to see it that way, though. The uncertainty surrounding the extent of the problem, and the isolation, is making many people angry, irritable, anxious. “Those with prior mental health problems are especially vulnerable. I have received complaints of people losing sleep and stress levels being high. Those who had mild OCD are showing a surge in symptoms,” says Sapna Bangar, psychiatrist and head of Mpower - The Centre, a mental health organisation in Mumbai. Children may be more disturbed because they don’t completely understand the situation, but can feel that something is wrong. Bangar suggests that parents share with them the illustrated explainers released by the World Health Organization.

In a crisis, and this is one, relationships may show signs of fray. “One of my clients today were a couple, who were planning a trip abroad for their anniversary. Now, because of the coronavirus threat, the husband wants to cancel the trip and the wife is unable to realise the nature of medical emergency and insists on going because she feels she is never able to achieve anything she desires.Their arguments became so bad that their families sent them to me for counselling,” says Delhi-based psychologist, Geetanjali Kumar.

Help At Hand

For many, technology is helping keep at bay the feeling of being cut off , stopping them from getting cabin fever. For those working from home, there are always video calls. “I used to take tea breaks with a colleague of mine. Now we are making video calls to each other around the same time,” says the Google employee.

According to an article in The New Yorker, in China, nightclubs that had to close their doors because of the coronavirus lockdown, turned to virtual cloud-clubbing, where viewers could watch DJ sets on streaming platforms and even send messages to be read out. A new reality show “Home Karaoke Station” had singers performing from their homes, even as they were in self-quarantine.Gyms offered online workout classes. In Iran, doctors and nurses participated in a coronavirus dance challenge, “posting videos of themselves dancing in hazmat suits”.

In India, actors like Deepika Padukone, have taken the WHO’s Safe Hands Challenge and a video of a group of cops from Kerala doing a ‘hand washing dance’ has gone viral.

Having a routine also helps, says Sunil Mittal, psychiatrist at CIMBS, a psychiatric mental healthcare centre in Delhi. Narinder Kumar, for example, still wakes up at his usual time and even dresses for work, before settling down to answering his mails and doing his meetings over phone and videochat, 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 would usually be apologetic about calling you post office hours, now don’t think of it as a transgression into your me time, because you are at home anyway,” says Manohar.

And it is difficult to replicate those unplanned moments: bumping into a colleague at the coffee vending machine or water cooler and exchanging gossip or having a quick chat about work and relationships, giving or getting a reassuring pat on the back when low. This trigger ideas, lifts the mood, helps you return to your work refreshed. Planned conversations on the phone, or a videochat, lack that spontaneity and warmth.


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 of coronavirus completely. How will the time we spend in isolation in the meantime impact us? Will it change our habits, making us more introverted than we were before COVID-19 pushed us into our rooms?

An article in The New Yorker, states that “over time, the impact of the novel coronavirus may be so sweeping that it alters human rituals and behaviors that have evolved over millennia”. The article quotes Terrence Deacon, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, 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 about trust. If that behavior passes on a deadly virus, then it affects our trust markers.”

The aftermath of the pandemic, as psychologist Geetanjali Kumar 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, it may take time to pick up where they left off before the advent of the coronavirus.

“The seclusion was gradual, so must be the return to our usual social habits,” says psychiatrist Sapna Bangar. For those working from home, returning to office must be immediate, once that option is withdrawn. But casual socialising might take more time to pick up. “I won’t be able to start socialising immediately as soon as the restrictions are removed,” admits Parul Khanna, a young entrepreneur from Delhi. The seclusion, she feels, should teach us to appreciate the things that we take for granted, “like hanging out with friends, going out for a movie…”.

“The one thing that I hope this pandemic teaches us and that we remember even after the threat is over,” says psychiatrist Sunil Mittal, “is hygiene. In a country like India, with a dense population, respiratory hygiene (like covering your mouth while coughing), frequent washing of hands and not touching your face, may go a long way in containing the spread of many other infections.”

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