In the years to come, our descendants will want to know what it was like to be alive now, during the Great Pandemic of 2020. But memory is an imperfect instrument. It fades, it fragments, it’s easily rewritten. For the sake of those stories we’ll tell one day, I wanted to write down the feel of this moment while my impressions are fresh.
I acknowledge I may not be the best chronicler. The disease hasn’t touched me, not deeply. I’m reading stories of hospitals overwhelmed, brave doctors and nurses crushed by the surge of suffering people. It’s like living in a house where a great storm is raging outside. I can see the wind and the waves beating at the glass, and I know people are fighting for their lives in that maelstrom, but in here it’s silent. But no one has been entirely unaffected, and if I can’t write a report from the center, perhaps I can write one from the fringe.
Looking back, I can admit that I was too complacent. I heard about the first outbreak in China with only mild interest. Even when I read about the total lock-down in Wuhan, it was like something happening on the moon. In retrospect, I can’t understand my own thought process. I suppose I must have assumed that it wouldn’t cross the Himalayas to us, that it would be stamped out like SARS was.
Given the understandable distrust of news from within an authoritarian state, the world could perhaps be forgiven for not taking this seriously when it was solely China’s problem. But then the virus struck Italy and Spain almost simultaneously. That should have been the moment we realized it wasn’t going to be containable. And seeing Italy’s frantic response – its rapid roll-out of once-unimaginable quarantine measures that were nevertheless always a step behind – made us understand how serious it truly was. India did take preventive measures and our casualties are much lesser than many other countries.
With almost everything including the parks shut down, the last three weeks have been uncannily peaceful. I’ve been going for a walk in the road facing my house at 6 am. It’s a short road, 90 seconds to negotiate from one end to the other and I feel like a caged lion in the zoo shuttling from one side to the other. Nevertheless I do my constitutional for one hour. The metric is time and not distance for me. As I often tell myself and my friends - If you cannot spare time for exercise, you will have to spare time for illnesses.
But moving through a world of other human beings feels more perilous than ever. I’m having a juxtaposition of emotions that I would have thought was impossible: the feeling that everyone I see might be a dangerous threat, and also a feeling of solidarity, like we’re all allies fighting side-by-side in the same battle.
The simplest action is freighted with a moral weight it never had before. There’s a low-intensity paranoia suffusing our existence. We’re afraid to touch, afraid to interact, afraid to share the same space or breathe the same air. The supermarkets are like surgical bays, people going about their shopping in gloves and masks as if in a dream where they’re unconscious of the oddity. And just as I’m wary of strangers, I wonder if they’re wary of me. After all, I too could be an asymptomatic carrier, exhaling death and destruction and not even aware of it!
At the same time, we’re united by this common enemy. The virus makes no distinctions of religion or nationality; it imperils us all alike, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the common. The indiscriminateness of its threat underscores our shared humanity and the fact that we live on the same planet and what happens anywhere matters to all of us everywhere.
However the internet has been a particular blessing. Despite all it’s done to spread misinformation and fear, it makes us feel less lonely and makes the isolation easier to bear. It’s like we’re alone together, reaching out to each other: a million small cells of community, separate yet glowing with connection. I can only imagine how much more isolating and terrifying the 1918 pandemic must have been without that channel of communication.
But I’m an introvert and it hasn’t been too bad.
Perhaps it’s too soon to look forward to the resumption of life as we knew it. We’re going through a great upheaval, and there’s no telling how the world may change because of it. It could be for the worse, leaving us traumatized and feeding xenophobia; or for the better, making us kinder, more thoughtful about each other’s needs, and fairer to the underpaid and underappreciated doctors and nurses we all depend on.
Only time will tell whether we learn the right lessons. Until then, our duty is to take each day as it comes and live, as best as we can, in the midst of these strange times.