The Black Death of our time

The world became more connected in these past two weeks. Unfortunately, the reason was not a happy one. Covid-19 is spreading like wildfire across the world with unprecedented speed. And, governments and people alike fumble with how best to respond. The consensus now is that the way to fight this virus is to “flatten the curve”—slow down the rate at which the virus spreads so that health care infrastructure is able to cope. People have been advised to stay home and work from home, and the words “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” have entered our vocabulary.

Now, social distancing is actually not a concept Indians take easily. As a land we are densely populated, as communities we are tightly knit and as people we love to be involved in each others business. No matter which city of India one lives in, or what social strata one belongs to, we can be sure to find small groups of uncles or aunties or young people assembled in their localities chatting up and updating each other on the latest developments in the neighborhood, city, country and world. ‘Adda’ is a national pastime.

People wait at a distance from one another while waiting to buy take away pizza on Via delle Muratte in Rome | AFP People wait at a distance from one another while waiting to buy take away pizza on Via delle Muratte in Rome | AFP

Social distancing is the very opposite of Indian instinct. The social-consensus imposed and now increasingly government-ordered self-quarantining and social distancing are throwing up a host of interesting and typically Indian responses in people’s homes.

A close friend of mine, homebound in the United States, cribbed about how her father in Kolkata has no comprehension of social distancing and insists on going twice a day to the tea stall down the road from his house to chat with his chai-buddies and compare notes on how goes the world. Another friend complained that her domestic help refuses to skip even a single day’s work—even though paid leave is offered—because she cannot understand why someone who is not sick should sit at home.

My own driver spent 10 minutes arguing with me on why it is safe to travel one and a half hours by train, and report to duty. When I did not budge, he conceded that the real reason he wanted to come to work was that at home his wife and kids create a nuisance, and “main kantaal jata hai! [My brains get fried].”

My own maid began to cough a few days ago, and when I told her she has to stay home, she retorted that the doctor had told her that she was young and so coronavirus “would do nothing to her”. I spent an exasperated few minutes explaining to her how she could be a carrier for the virus and infect immune-compromised people—especially the elderly.

But perhaps the most poignant and hard hitting logic against self-quarantining came from the carpenter who works at my home which is being renovated. “Take a few days off,” I told him.

“I can’t, madam.”

“Why not?”

“I am a daily wager. I earn my roti daily. If I start sitting at home, my family and I will go hungry.”

I noted that social distancing and self-quarantining are actually the recourse of the privileged. I recalled the words of my friend who teaches graphic design in Australia. “I am terrified that I will lose my job,” he fretted on FaceTime. “Why will you lose your job?”

“I work on contract in a private institute. If a full lockdown takes place, the institute may well decide to suspend the next semester and not want to spend money paying salaries of contracted staff. And, who knows that worse things could happen, and when this blows over, people may no longer see value in learning 3D graphic design.” And this is Covid-19’s other big risk. It has the potential to destroy livelihoods very severely. We may be living through the Black Death of our time and not realising it.

And then to calm my fears, I took out my good old Scrabble board and thought to myself: When dark clouds of uncertainty gather, it is safest to take refuge in the simple joys of the familiar. Stay safe, everyone!

The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.