Extraordinary in the ordinary

In times of social distancing, close the emotional gap

If there ever was a time when society needed compassion, it is now.
Published at Hindustan Times.

I live in a part of Mumbai that was declared a containment zone because of Covid-19.

It is one of the 240 plus zones in the city observing the lockdown with a higher level of severity because a resident in the zone tested positive for coronavirus. The patient (I dislike referring to him/her as a ‘case’) was immediately hospitalized. Officials of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation marked the building the patient lived in as an epicenter and a radius of about a kilometer around it as a containment zone. They sanitized and disinfected the building. People in the zone who may have come in direct contact with the patient are being proactively checked and sent for tests. The building’s main gate is kept locked. No resident can drive out of the zone. There is zero movement of cars and two-wheelers. Even people on foot are closely watched and questioned by Mumbai police stationed round-the-clock inside the zone. People are only allowed to leave the area if they have a medical emergency. The state authorities are doing a phenomenal job to enforce social distancing.

The other day I left the containment zone to visit a medical store. As I stood in the queue where everyone kept a distance of two meters between each other, I noticed that each one stood stiff, and eerily quiet. People either glanced at each other suspiciously or refused to look each other in the eye. The air was fraught with tension. People didn’t want to even acknowledge that other human beings stood around them. Everyone acted like they were self-sufficient islands and only they mattered. When a water bottle accidentally slipped from a woman’s hand, no one bent down to stop it from rolling down the pavement. And when it was my turn to place the order for medicines with the staff outside the store (no one was allowed to enter), people in the queue perked up their ears to listen to what medicine I asked for, wondering if I needed something to cure a cough or cold. It felt as if they were after my blood!

I returned home disturbed. For the first time since the lockdown, I understood why there were reports of residents attacking nurses and doctors, or people ostracizing their neighbors and acquaintances simply because they were sent for tests, irrespective of results. Such behavior was reported from different parts of the country, inside containment zones and outside. Fear and panic combined with misinformation is a lethal combination.

Now, with a fresh mind, it’s worth revisiting the one and only norm for the ongoing nationwide lockdown – social distancing. What does it mean? Maintaining a greater than usual “physical distance” from others. Why? To reduce chances of exposure and transmission of a contagious disease. What’s required is only physical distancing which means we can’t meet, congregate, hug each other, or shake hands.

But why are we degrading it to emotional distancing? What’s stopping us from sharing a cheerful vibe, being kind in our behavior or humane in our attitude? Will the virus spread if we look at fellow human beings as people, just like us, battling the unexpected disruption? Will we contract the virus if we spare a smile for the delivery boy and tell him how grateful we are for serving us while we sit in the safety of four walls? Will the virus enter our body if we say “Namaste” to the security guards instead of treating them like they were invisible?

If there ever was a time when society needed compassion, it is now. Every person is in the thick of fatigue and multifarious struggles – managing the added burden of household-cum-office work, ensuring safety of dependents, engaging children in a confined space, dealing with the shock of dramatic changes, preparing for financial uncertainties, reworking plans, and dealing with other unforeseen circumstances post the lockdown. Everyone is in an emotionally vulnerable state (I’m not even touching on caregivers of patients battling coronavirus).

Hence it is not the time to be selfish or apathetic. In the current times, that amounts to cruelty. Let’s not look at each other as culprits or enemies or virus spreaders. Among the many skills we may want to acquire during this unusual period of quarantine, the most pressing one is upping our emotional quotient. Let’s put in efforts to become sensitive, to care. And if we are privileged enough to have a roof over our heads, own a personal conveyance, and have the money to stock up supplies, let’s be acutely aware of that privilege and understand that we have the bandwidth to be kind to the ecosystem around us. If not us, who?

Moreover, by being kind, I don’t mean we have to rise above the needs of our personal safety to become a brave heart volunteer serving in the frontlines. I mean doing simple things. For starters, when you step out for essentials, smile at the people you pass by. Even with a mask on, your smile will shine through your eyes. That may be just what someone needs to pull through a hard day. Say a cheerful word or two to people braving the desolate outdoors, performing their duties. Maybe they wish to realize they matter, that their efforts are valued. Salute or say Jai Hind to the policeman or any other representative of the government to show respect for their service in times as difficult as these.

Let this period of social distancing bring out the best in us, not the worst. It’s time to be physically far away, but emotionally nearer than ever.

This column was published at Hindustan Times.

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