The absurd days at home after Covid-19 hit India. (Originally posted on my WordPress blog.)
10 April, 2020
I first heard of the novel coronavirus on the news. I did not think much of it then, but in hindsight, I find the nuisance to be named in poor taste: “Covid-19”, like there is an expectation of a Covid-20, Covid-21, and so on. Any remainder of one’s natural curiosity, not totally ravaged by the tyrannical flow of information on the phenomenon, may have prompted one to look up this departure from past nomenclature: SARS and MERS were simpler names, as though a reflection of their times; they had a predictable ring to it and actually sounded like they belonged to the same family of diseases.
Like some other humans, I did not pay much attention to Covid-19 until there was tangible conversation about it infecting my own country. Like the virus itself, it swept the office gossip circuit suddenly but surely, with a premonitory, legendary expertise. A co-worker had just returned from a trip to Italy (his honeymoon). At the time, the country was still in the news only for being the latest “hotspot” and not, as the US is today, a front runner for the highest number of infections.
My immediate reaction was an anticipation of the imminent Work from Home period. Back when I was still striving for adulthood three weeks ago, I was naïvely and faintly excited by the idea of a few weeks at home, welcoming cozy images of insulation from the daily struggles of travel and small talk. Initial reactions at my workplace were similarly half-joking, half-serious speculation about the weeks to come. Groups of three or four would mill around to discuss Covid-19, with some influential members repeating themselves across circles.
“Why did he come back to office?” one person would ask about the traveler. “Couldn’t he have worked from home?”
“I heard he was properly scanned at the airport,” another would say.
“Is that enough? Scanned how?” Such an ignorant member was quite necessary for all the basic questions to be answered by someone else, who'd then be crowned the resident Corona-expert. This expert might begin educating with a squeeze of the hapless sanitizer bottle nearby, by then been deployed across key spots in the office such as printers, elevators, and meeting rooms.
“Well, they are checking temperatures, but that’s not nearly enough. A person may carry the virus for fourteen days without showing any symptoms, risking the chance of spreading it to others.”
“Yes… That’s why it’s so dangerous. It spreads through surfaces and can last there,—"
The next few days passed by in this fashion, each threatening such change in the way we work that I believed the word “unprecedented” must have peaked in fame. I did have the chance to look this up on Google’s Search Trends.
While a certain, totally corporate, segment of the workforce could expect minimal disruption in the way they worked (a disruption that still quite significant in these unprecedented times), the decision would still have difficult implications on other parts of the organization that did not lend themselves so easily to remote work. Decisive action, however, with specific plans for each part of the organization was the need of the hour. This would undoubtedly be immensely challenging, and although India had only reported a single-digit number of cases then, I was growing increasingly worried that people may not be taking it seriously enough, rashly exposing themselves; that the conversation was still about whether or not to Work from Home, and not how we should prepare for it and cope with it. I was surprised at, and yearned to understand, the psychology of that worker who returned from Italy and felt it somehow necessary to enter the office, even if he’d had his temperature checked at the airport.
A colleague and I were leaving our office building, together stepping out onto the slushy, broken roads of Mumbai, when he remarked, “Just thinking about all the invisible sickness that could be around me makes me sick.”
As he was getting into his cab, I asked him what I’d been afraid to. “Are they planning to declare work from home or not?” I prattled off a statistic I’d read about China’s progression: When they had neared 115,000 infections towards the end of February (2020, that is), interventions such as active detection, isolation of potential cases, and large scale social restrictions had lowered the number by 67 percent. A week earlier, and the numbers would have been lower by the same figure.
“You can totally work from home,” he told me. “That’s what some of the leadership team have already been telling their teams. You do not have to come in if you are at all unwell or feeling scared. And they are likely to deploy the BCP.”
The BCP, or Business Continuity Plan, was an exercise carried out by the upper management wherein the whole corporate workforce, including my twenty-member team, was split into two complementary groups, so that if anything were to happen to a member of one group, he or she could be substituted by a member from the other. The idea was to have the two groups taking turns to come into office, thereby limiting the chances of spread and taking a step towards social distancing.
I was in Group 2, which planned to come in the week after the next. On the last working day before that week was to commence, I WhatsApped my boss, prefacing his name with that friendliest of greetings: “Dear”. I did want to endear him to the idea of me not showing up a day earlier than the rest of my group.
“I’m having a cough and generally feeling very worried about the situation outside,” I wrote to him. “Would it be alright if I worked from home?”
“Sure dear,” he replied.
That Friday was the first of many days to be spent working from home. On a call with a colleague from Group 1, we spoke about one of the less urgent items on my plate, which involved interaction with members of my own group. “Oh yes, you will all be in office the week after. Why don’t you just close it then?”
Over the next few hours that day, reports from multiple sources around the world crystallized into little grey widgets on my phone screen. Vague suspicion solidified into a gut feeling that my colleagues and I would not see each other for a while. The Business Continuity Plan, like so much else that followed, was a best laid plan made futile by force majeure. The term meant “superior force”, or, as my lawyer mother explained it, “an act of God”. In what might have been a first in the nine months I had been living with her, we had discussed her area of work.
I had my first fight about Covid-19 four days later. On that Tuesday, I also fought with three other people. The arguments all unfolded in parallel, but each of them was unique and presented a fresh challenge.
The most enervating fight was spawned by another, smaller fight. It began innocently but lasted well into the early hours of the next day.
I had just woken up from an impromptu slumber in the middle of the evening.
Evening naps have never made me feel good about myself. They force an entire introspection and reevaluation of one’s commitment to one’s goals, values, and general life strategy. I drearily ventured outside my room to drink some water, keeping my phone with me to occupy myself on the journey. I could hear the news playing in the living room: There were now 65 cases in India, with the highest number of them in my state, Maharashtra. I thought about how half of my office was still traveling around, like most of India. My mother was still going in to work, but in our car. She was avoiding public transport but employed a driver who perhaps used it. Our maids were still coming in every day. My brothers had friends they were unfortunately still in contact with. Quite dazed, I merely stood in the kitchen for a period. I was convinced the coronavirus was already around me.
An artefact more relevant to the SARS period jolted me out of my unhygienic reverie. My mother silenced our landline by receiving the phone call from my father, who wanted to inform her of his flight to Chennai, our hometown, in a few hours. She soon hung up and told me not to bother: The issue at hand, supposedly beyond me, was that our house there had been abandoned by its tenants; the family of a woman called Sunita had fled back home.
My chat groups with friends told me of similar stories of people dashing across the country to attend to suddenly urgent, unfinished matters, or settle down in their homes, in the anticipation of a prolonged nation-wide lockdown. There was speculation that airlines would be suspending flights, which would be followed by a widespread restriction of domestic travel. Ticket prices were the cheapest they had been in years.
My father intended to prevent invasion of our house by strangers and miscreants by physically placing himself in it. Apparently, there was no other way for him to know the state it had been left in short of checking himself. This is where we differed. The argument, however, was blessedly brief and consisted of me suggesting he “leverage” neighbors in Chennai and not risk traveling on planes. Already angry at my mother for letting me in on his best laid plans, he berated me for constantly interfering in his life and repeated that his flight out was in a few hours.
I am not religious. That was, however, the first time since Covid-19 that I chanted the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I was – and as of writing this, still am – about to turn twenty-seven years old. Although I was still chasing the ill-defined, elusive concept of adulthood, I decided I might already be wise.
Having thus concluded this, I checked my phone. I had a few messages from Vahavana, one of my best friends, which I decided to ignore to instead tell her of my mounting concern about the situation.
“This is terrible,” I wrote. “My father is traveling, my parents are not listening to me, and all of India is going to get coronavirus expressly because of such people, who read the news but are still unaware, and do not listen to their children.”
This was the message that conceived the second and biggest fight of the night. As it crowned, however, my phone interrupted me again. I had recently started seeing someone, a boy who lived in IIT Bombay. He was calling to tell me that he was leaving for Delhi, where his family lived: the college had issued a notice that hostels would have to be evacuated over the next seventy-two hours because of brewing uncertainty about the coming weeks. There was no guarantee that caterers, janitors and other essential workers could continue to work at this time.
“This has turned out to be the strangest and most intense birthday and LSD trip I have ever had,” he began.
“Neha and I decided to try that remaining blot.”
“Wow. Do you think we should meet for a bit before you leave? There’s no way of knowing when you might be back or anything, is there?”
“That cough I have had has not gone and I am now worried it is not merely a cough and I will not see you with it.”
I paused, unsure of what to say, hardly wanting to meet someone who believed he might have Covid. And as likely as it was that it would not be more serious than a typical cough, the day had grown too strange to articulate that plausible thought.
“Okay,” I said. “Take care, alright?”
“Alright, I’m going to get back to packing.”
I ended the call to multiple Covid-19 notifications, which I realized I was starting to take in without fully processing. Vahavana had replied to my panicked messages about my parents and the future of Covid-19 in India, chastising me for my reaction. “Panicking is the worst thing you can do. How does it help you do anything about the situation?”
“Well, sometimes the sole purpose of an emotion is to signal to you how you are feeling, and to feel the feeling itself. Lots of people are undergoing a lot of sudden change right now, their families and loved ones are moving across the country with a pandemic going on. And if there’s any country the spread could be totally exponential and catastrophic in, it is India. So yes, I think it is fair to be worried about this on multiple levels.”
My father’s rash departure, the abrupt end to a fledgling, uncertain romance, and my mother’s infuriatingly calm surrender receded into the background as a monstrous quarrel ensued between Vahavana and me. It lasted hours and hours, during which time I took my multi-vitamins and covered with her such wide-ranging topics such as the function of emotions, and whether we, as friends, had the right to tell each other how to feel, what was really likely to happen over the next few weeks, what constituted an exaggeration, and, ultimately, wasn’t it hypocritical of her to not accept my feelings when what she was demanding of me was an acceptance of her feelings about how we were in the middle of a pandemic we could do nothing about?
We apologized to each other the next day and agreed to disagree. Two weeks ago, some of us were under the guise that we were prepared to deal with most vagaries of adult life. We lived under the impression that we had developed such useful skills as acceptance, by actively failing at the opposite, learning that life is often untamable, and that we are better off adhering to the solid logic of the Serenity Chant. There had been no preparation for the “right” emotional reaction to a phenomenon such as Covid-19, such as a healthy ‘balance’ of appropriate concern for oneself, one’s loved ones, and the world at large – for what else could prevent the disease from spreading – and the wisdom, which can sometimes camouflage apathy, to accept that which we cannot change. Because none of us had thought about how we would deal with a situation this complex, which had begun to strain every aspect of our lives - personal, professional, at both an individual and a systemic level, with no indication of what was to follow. Hysteria was the natural outcome.
Hysteria everywhere: oozing out of an infinite stream of text messages, tweets, memes, news articles, videos, a magnificent digital amplification of the actual feeling coursing through individuals, groups, and the internet-accessing population of the world at large. Everyone was availing for the first time ever the opportunity to react at massive scale to the same universal experience, together undergoing the sheer cognitive load of intake, dissection, discussion, speculation, argument, and analysis.
“Sabka stressful time chal raha hai,” a friend summarized it the next day, referring to fights he also was having with his girlfriend.
A few days later, the Indian Prime Minister held up a placard that read “Co Ro Na” on national television. He had created a mnemonic for his people to remember not to leave their homes at all on 22nd March, the first day of intentional self-isolation in India. He termed it the Janata Curfew, and instructed the country to bang vessels and bells in unison at 5 pm that day as an expression of solidarity for those essential workers who had continued to serve the country in these trying times. On the day of the curfew, several videos surfaced real time of people bursting firecrackers, tolling vessels and bells, dancing on the streets, and having a merry time all round. Give India a date, and it will give you a festival.
Another four days later, the CEO of a company commenced a company Town Hall. “First, I want to thank you all for the superhuman effort that each and everyone one of you has put into making this transition work. It has not been easy. But what is beautiful about the lockdown is that for the first time – in years, probably – I have had all my meals with my family. By the way, Nag, how many steps have you taken today? Nag habitually completes 10,000 steps while on calls. I am proud to say that I too have completed 10,000 steps per day over the last week.”
Nag’s laugh drowned out the embarrassing electronic silence of this first company-wide conference call. “Well, I’ve completed 30,000 steps a day ever since the lockdown, so you’re behind me.”
The three-week lockdown that India had been thrown into overnight on 24th March had an entire organization now working remotely. The transition itself was surprisingly and commendably seamless, even if the weeks that followed were to involve a significant transition in behavior and work styles.
The HR leader took over, “We have upgraded our regular Work from Home policy to accommodate a Covid top-up worth Rs 5,000 to buy items that make it more comfortable for you to work from home. These items include headphones, laptop stands, any ergonomic items and so on.” Quite immediately, a flurry of notifications collapsed into one banner indicating forty-two new messages from one of my work groups on WhatsApp. The conversation was abuzz with such pertinent, privileged doubts as how we were expected to avail the policy when delivery of everything except essential services had been suspended.
My colleagues from Group 2 and I had already gotten a head start on the lockdown. The major challenge remained maintaining the desire and discipline to work when surrounded by the comforts of home. Old enemies such as Procrastination, Tardiness, and Distraction drew me into their decadent arms, thrusting upon me a confusing cocktail of temporary relief from work, tinged with the bitter taste of guilt and mediocrity.
Eventually, and unfortunately, one learns that the only way around the latter is to not pine for the former. While these dichotomous forces operated at the micro-level, matters of daily functioning, there was a layer of the same emotions applied to macro- concerns, such as guilt at feeling any reluctance to work at all, considering the great fortune and privilege one must necessarily be born into to even have a shot at avoiding Covid-19. I had the ability to work from home, stock up on food, and follow all prescriptions to stay safe. The problems of my class were emotional and mental; we felt survivor’s guilt as we watched migrant workers suffer from the lockdown and insufficiently planned measures of the Indian government.
The impact of the mental stress itself, however, could not by any means be undermined or ignored. It merely reinforces that no problem caused by the coronavirus has been too small. People were dealing with multiple severe lifestyle changes overnight: straddling a blurred, never-before-seen line between working at home and simply being at home, with the prolonged inconvenience of conducting business sans physical contact, while juggling responsibilities such as managing family and also taking care of the household and its chores. This, of course, does not even cover those who face(d) the prospect of salary cuts or layoffs. Every single aspect of life, once taken for granted, had been stripped in a matter of days, with no end in sight and constant reminders that the foreseeable future held worse. A large and unimagined emotional toil had been thrust upon many, for no fault of their own, with limited opportunity to exercise the agency we have come to understand (or believe) can get us out of any spot.
The organization had deployed forums, internal chats, and dedicated phone numbers for people to use as resources to talk about their problems and connect with others, as a community that had made this drastic change in the way we lived. People discussed measures they’d taken to manage the stress and transition. Most of them had to do with finding ways to actively differentiate between the concepts of work and home, such as designating work areas around the house, dressing in formals during work hours, finding time to exercise and channel energy productively, tending to family and hobbies, and making time for "self-care".
One of the people coordinating this internal system reached out to me to ask how I was doing. She wanted to understand what I thought of the situation, both the positives and the negatives. I reflected on the weeks that had passed at home: It struck me that I did not have the usual recall of the specifics of my days, the way I might have when I would think back to the office. There were no hooks to attach my memories to, no faces or places or time of day to associate with what I did or what people said to me. Entire days were visualized as a blur of chat screens and phone calls, interspersed with movements between my desk, my bed, and brief interactions with my family. The amorphous sequence of our actions across the virtual and the physical realms seemed to have the logic of a Tame Impala video, minus the trippy melody.
I was fortunately mindful of this colleague’s time and more practical in my response. “Sometimes I have trouble concentrating,” I wrote to her on Microsoft Teams. While I waited for her reply, I quickly switched to WhatsApp Web on my browser to attend to other work. When I read her follow-up question on what I had done to mitigate the problem, I told her that an app called Headspace helped me meditate in short bouts and gave me the breaks I needed from constantly swimming in a multitude of digital forms of communication.
For the first two times I tried it, Headspace helped me fall asleep quickly, a problem I have always struggled with. A soothing, young, male British accent would begin: “Welcome to Headspace on sleep, and to this guided exercise. Now, before you do anything at all, I’d just like you to take a moment, just to get comfortable.” The app would tell me to focus on the voice, which would tell me to focus on my body and all the sounds around me. On the third day, the spell was broken when I thought about how I was listening to my phone to fall asleep, how fast the world was changing and if it was changing so fast, couldn’t we just get rid of our love-hate relationship with the biological clock entirely? What a pathetic capitulation it is, the need to sleep. In an apocalypse, you want to spend as much time as possible doing what you love.
I also told my colleague that I had tried to maintain an exercise routine by Fast Walking in my society, for about forty minutes every day. It took me ten times longer to break a sweat than my “usual” workout. I had begun swimming every day, after reading an entire book called the Power of Habit to motivate myself to do so. I had also hired the instructor who came to the pool downstairs; we were on my ninth class before the outbreak caused it to be cordoned off indefinitely. Now, I am in the habit of wearing shoes for my Fast Walks. They make me look like I am about to break into a run any minute. Fortunately, there are only a handful of others where I live, who also decide to venture downstairs, whom I could disappoint with such anti-climactic motion.
The evenings are beautiful, bright and empty when I go downstairs, a strong breeze usually accompanying the sun’s pink descent behind my building. Twenty minutes into my first Fast Walk after the lockdown, I was interrupted by an aggressive call from above: “Hey Lady!” Unused to such courtesy, I dubiously looked at the sky. An old man leaned out of his window on the first floor, his wife defiantly behind him. “You are not supposed to be walking!” he shouted. “You’re breaking the law!” I wondered whether I should inform him he’d be audible to me at a fraction of his volume, and continued walking, a criminal at large.
I did not dwell much on such positives of the situation with my colleague. A common issue my colleague told me about was that of isolation, given many rely on the presence of other people at the workplace to feel energized. I had grown quite happy in talking to everyone I knew online. Not only did I have more control over my time and the channels of communication I used, these also offered an easy, endless bevy of conversational aids. One could liberally employ emojis, stickers, filters, backgrounds, et al; there is always opportunity to instantly lighten the mood with a pertinent meme or a funny video, effortlessly furthering chats and relationships. Perhaps we have settled into a less judgmental, less acute social construct, in which the conversational demon of awkwardness rears a rather benign head. In the virtual world, everything is quite awkward.
This is obviously highly beneficial for comedy. Video calls amongst friends now mockingly begin with “Hi everyone, I hope you and your families are safe in these troubled times”, allowing us to make light of a crisis that required seriousness in most other conversations. There are memes about how randomly uttering any one of the typical conference call catchphrases can get you through them. At work, quips have been made about calls with the CEO ending with “more than 10,000 next steps”. I have sometimes begun chats with a meme or a joke, because working with people online is that much easier after you have shared a laugh.
It is beautiful that terrors we cannot control drive us to laugh, and how. Ever since the start of Covid-19, there has been a sharp spike in the volume of senselessly hilarious and (arguably) totally shitty content that I have been sending and receiving. A friend sent me a video of eleven women screeching like rabid dogs in what was supposedly a yoga class. I repeatedly watched a video of a man choreographing a dramatic contemporary dance with only his fingers multiple times. There was another one with a woman using her entire body to crawl on her floor like an earthworm. We are somehow now also at the point of revisiting challenges of yore such as Yanny or Laurel and the Grey or Pink shoe to find out what our brains are really like.
I have not limited my consumption solely to videos of people turning everything around them into entertainment; there is other old material eerily relevant to our times. Along with individuals around the world, brands, actors, and comedians have found ways of producing content at home. Perhaps not all of it is funny or well-made, but those are almost certainly not the sole objectives anymore: Humour is one of the most powerful connections human beings can share. Jokes require a shared context to be understood and relatable, and one of the biggest positive features of the novel coronavirus, in the times of widespread internet access, is the ability for everyone to laugh about, and at, the same thing. Laughter offers a powerful route towards acceptance and coping, sometimes via deflection but otherwise directly. It is an act of defiance in the face of helplessness, an active rejection of the endless opportunity to be melancholy. In the worldwide conference call with Covid-19 we all find ourselves in, it is our way of interrupting with: “Sorry, but you’re on mute.”