COVID-19 Stories: The trails and trials of the pandemic
The pandemic changes all of us. A former journalist explains how.
US Diaries is a collection of stories written by Indian-Americans.
Supriya Pant is a former journalist based in New Jersey.
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Last year, in early February, I sat with a group of friends enjoying an extensive indoor brunch. It was Saturday, and we sat there discussing travel and holiday plans for the year ahead, over plates of good food served in a packed restaurant, playing live music. We were enjoying our little community in Jersey City, New Jersey where my husband and I had recently shifted. Before leaving, we all promised each other to do "this kind of meet-up" more often. It has been fourteen months since and I haven't met those friends, in person.
Between those causal promises and now, the world has gone through a tectonic shift. Covid-19 wasn't in the picture in February of 2020 but by mid-March, we were learning things that would define our year and many more ahead. As we adjusted to work from home and social distancing, the world around shifted even faster. On one side we laughed about the toilet paper hoardings and Zoom fashion and on the other hand, each day, the internet and TV broadcasted images of unseen misery from around the globe. Governments around the world brought in travel restrictions and new health directives, and for the first time I felt pangs for home. Before Covid-19, India was always just a direct flight away but 2020 made it much, much further. The reality of having feet in separate continents never hit home harder.
We were worried for parents and family back home while adjusting to changes in our own daily life. Yes, we are aware of our privileges, but behind all the laughter at those cross-continental family Zoom parties was the nervous anxiety that we didn't know when we would be able to physically see our parents and family again. Every celebration, birthday or anniversary shifted online. Our guilt is also our cultural reality. My husband and I have grown up with the idea of family as a unit. I lived in a house with three generations living under the same roof, but work and life has brought us so many air miles away from home. It is not a question we think on an average day, but this Covid-19 separation forced us to think that many times over.
I remember scanning each Indian news portal with intense attention to understand guidelines that would apply to our loved ones back home, in addition to those that would apply to us in Jersey.
Even now one year later, I find myself reverse parenting my mother sometimes. " Don't forget your mask, and it has to cover the nose and mouth" also "don't just carry the sanitizer but use it frequently" are frequent instructions to my mother on WhatsApp anytime she plans to step out of the house.
For the first few months even something as basic as grocery shopping seemed like an insurmountable challenge. Every available online delivery service was maxed out and we had to step out to the store, although we treated it with surgical care. I learned to literally keep a bottle of sanitizer in every pocket and the mask became an essential. Now it is as easy to remember as keeping my house keys on the way out, but it took us a while to reach this point.
We took our time adjusting to the end of social life as we knew it, and we are two adults. I can't even begin to imagine the challenges for a family with children. Along with binge watching, my husband and I learned to invest more time in reading and brought back board games into our life.
In a way it was a return to good childhood habits from the nineties. Looking back, we can now see that this time was crazy inventive for everyone around us, as we all coped in our own way. Many of us became better cooks, some days I saw so many banana breads on my Instagram that I was convinced of a soon-to-be banana scarcity. Others like me just ate a little more, highlighting the need for a special word for these extra pounds gained during the pandemic. I also started knitting, something that I hadn't tried since the last fifteen year.
That's crazy but I haven't told you the best part yet: I used wooden chopsticks from a takeaway restaurant as my knitting needles. The collective hurrah had to find an alternate outlet too as we learnt to deal with empty sport stadiums and virtual graduation ceremonies. But the fact remains that this was a year when we realized our own vulnerabilities as a human race and that danger is still far from over. The year had a few positives, positives that we still welcome. It made me aware of intense human adaptability. My mother has become so much more tech savvy in the past few months.
Because she too had to change her socialization. We learned to adapt to things, as expats, we were always in the habit of accumulating our holidays to take a long holiday home. This year we learned to rejuvenate local, at drivable distances safely accessible in our car bubbles. We hiked and took long walks, discovered beautiful state parks, national parks and scenic walkways around us in the tri-state region. To add to the new experiences outdoors, there were behavioural changes such as waiting before entering narrow sections of walking trails to let others pass in a socially distant manner, while the wildlife probably viewed us amused from a safe distance.
We started to appreciate small things in life, like the fact that I stay very close to the Hudson river waterfront and can enjoy long walks on its boardwalk. It was also a year to lean into the community. My book clubs went virtual, and I started to extensively use the digital catalogue of my local library. Everything from yoga to art classes went online. It was a remarkable shift in many ways. The Indian community ties are very strong in New Jersey. Every year we tend to look forward to community events. Of course, a lot of those could not be organized with the world under lockdowns, but friends did their bit. A friend sends Zoom links for Ganpati Arti at her place. We missed her homemade modaks but enjoyed the virtual Arti. Another friend decided to drive down dressed as Santa and deliver contact-free Christmas gifts for a great holiday experience. Everyone tried a little bit harder to stay connected.
To be fair, my experience has been relatively easy compared to a lot of people who faced the brunt of Covid- 19 health and economic crisis that followed. It is a privilege to fret over simpler things knowing very well how dire the situation still is and how no one can afford to drop the guards or the mask. Yet I see hope as a part of the human coping mechanism. Some days I look around and see the new normal. Designer masks and aloe vera sanitizers gracing supermarket aisles. Restaurants pivoting to outdoor dining, giving us the feel of exotic European cafes right here in our neighbourhood of Grove Street, Jersey City. I hope that with vaccines it will soon become even more vibrant. It's Spring here and unlike last year I managed to go for cherry blossom spotting on my walk this year. I am also hoping to travel back home soon.
Two weeks ago, there was a pop-up market around my block to sell old vinyl records. It was a sight, seeing people in masks queue up to look for their favourite music stacked up in cardboard boxes of Corona beer. It was slightly ironic, but also a huge relief that I could finally see a joke in there.
The views expressed are personal.
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