For two weeks now, though, Iyer has been despondent as the classes have been cancelled. But she does not quibble over the reasoning. “They are doing it for our safety as we are more prone to it at our age,” she muses, referring to Covid-19, the current pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus that is sweeping the world. After all, Iyer and her dance-class batchmates are all over 60 (Iyer herself is 70), putting them squarely in the bracket of the age group most at risk from the virus.
In putting away their dancing shoes, the group of 10 enthusiastic women who would otherwise never skip a class join the rest of the country in a collective bid to stall the relentless march of Covid-19.
Flatten the curve, exhort researchers, referring to the steep rise in graphs showing the spread of the virus. Or we are a goner. Weeks into the battle against Covid-19, experts say the best way to achieve this is through social distancing. If crises come with their own vocabularies, the most used word in the Covid-19 pandemic would probably be social distancing, a term that’s seen as a 100-fold rise in Google searches. This involves not mixing with people — for work or play — not going out of our houses except for essentials and throwing life as we knew it out of the window so that hospitals are not inundated with coronavirus cases. It is an unprecedented behavioural change experiment that is seeing people slow down and rethink many things they took for granted.
For people like Anshul Akhoury, the shift to this “new normal” has been rather drastic. Akhoury, a freelance writer, belongs to the tribe of digital nomads who enjoy combining writing assignments with their love for backpacking. In fact, the 31-year-old should have been exploring the historic quarter of Hoi An in Vietnam or the stunning Kuang Si Falls in Laos as you read this. But Covid-19 meant he had to cancel this and three other work trips. Instead, he has confined himself to his parents’ home in Patna.
The lifestyle change has taken some getting used to. But Akhoury says he has been keeping himself busy by finishing pending assignments, editing videos for his new You-Tube channel and making his way through various books he had bought but never had the time to read. “I don’t like being idle,” he explains.
While Akhoury’s trips were for work, many people have also had to cancel holidays because of travel bans and practising social distancing as a precaution. For several years now, higher incomes and better connectivity meant everyone had gotten used to the idea of being able to pack their backs and head out without a second thought, whether for an impulsive weekend trip or a longer holiday. The shutting of borders and grounding of planes have put paid to the plans of even those who haven’t quite bought into the notion of social distancing.
After some initial lamenting, people are now figuring out how to make the best of this. A look at online travel forums or the feeds of inveterate travellers shows that people are using the time to savour travel-themed books, organise photos of old holidays or to finally start the travel blog they had always planned to. Others intend to use the time to research for their next trip, whenever it might be.
There is no question about the gravity of living in the middle of a pandemic. But as with every crisis, it has also thrown up unexpected opportunities like these, says New Delhi-based social commentator Santosh Desai. “While an overall sense of anxiety still pervades, I do believe it is an opportunity of a certain kind that was not available in the course of our everyday lives. Whether by spending more time with your family or reading a little, it allows a sense of enforced slowing down of everything,” says Desai, also the CEO of Future Brands. For instance, the neighbourhood park that he is speaking from, he says on the phone, has never had so many people at 6 pm on a weekday.
Akhoury agrees. “I hope there is a kind of soft reboot in people’s minds so that they can learn to enjoy the small joys, like staying with their loved ones. I hope people realise that travelling on every holiday is not something they need to do.”
All this social distancing also seems to have created more time and opportunity for forays into the kitchen. “There are people I know who like to cook but could not because there wasn’t time. Now that you are stuck indoors, you can rediscover that talent,” says Desai. This would explain the recent deluge of pictures of people cooking up a storm, which has replaced the deluge of travel photos on social media.
For some, though, this is about survival as it becomes infeasible to order in every single meal — because of the expense, infection risk or both. Spadika Jayaraj, a 26-year-old business development executive, had gotten used to eating lunch at the offices of the fintech startup in Bengaluru where she works, and ordering dinner from a food-delivery app. But with her company telling employees to work from home from last week, that has changed. “I used to come back from work around 8:30 pm so there was never enough time to cook dinner. But now that I am home, it doesn’t make sense to not cook,” says Jayaraj. With many of her friends in the same boat, they exchange easy recipes.
Question of Fitness
Others are doing this at a larger scale. Mumbai-based journalist Peter Griffin has set up a Facebook group expressly aimed at those people who are not used to cooking but are now being forced to. Titled “Simple recipes for complicated times”, it attracted 175 members and several recipes in less than 24 hours.
But even as Jayaraj is enjoying her culinary experiments, the social distancing and partial lockdown involves other, less palatable readjustments. “I used to go to a CrossFit gym every day after work. That used to be the best part of my day and I really miss that.” Jayaraj’s gym in Bengaluru had downed shutters even before the Karnataka government ordered the closure of such public places to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Several others have voluntarily decided to stay away from fitness classes and similar group activities because of the risk of transmission. Final-year law student Nivedita Pandit, based in Delhi, is one of them. “I stopped going for Zumba classes a week ago because the cases of coronavirus were increasing. And they’re still increasing,” says Pandit. But since working out had become as important as brushing her teeth for Pandit, she makes sure she does not skip a daily routine of exercise, which includes a run in the park and bodyweight training. “Since I’m mostly at home and my workouts are limited, I am also making sure I eat well,” says the 23-year-old, who has been avoiding going out and meeting friends.
In the Great Isolation that everyone is being subject to, the big differentiator with any parallel event in history has been technology, which is turning out to be a lifeline for many. It is helping people get around the physical barriers now in place in new and innovative ways, whether for fitness or socialising. Atulaa Krishnamurthy will vouch for it.
The corporate lawyer used to treasure her one-hour gym session when she could switch off from work. For the past week or so, she has substituted that with a workout app. “Working out has so many benefits that spill over to my life. Hopefully, the app-based workout will give me the same feeling,” says the 26-year-old who is based in Bengaluru. As a bonus, she can coordinate these workouts with her younger sister, who is under lockdown in Paris. “We are planning to be accountability buddies — we will do the same workouts remotely and keep each other posted about our progress,” she says.
Serendipitously, Krishnamurthy also started a virtual book club recently with friends in Melbourne, New Delhi and Mumbai. “It was something we randomly planned but now it is proving to be really useful,” she adds. Psychologists underline the importance of these digital connections and activities for people holed up at home. In these anxiety-inducing times, it is important to stay connected emotionally, even as we distance ourselves physically. According to an article in medical journal The Lancet, “Confinement, loss of usual routine, and reduced social and physical contact with others were frequently shown to cause boredom, frustration, and a sense of isolation from the rest of the world, which was distressing to participants.”
One way for those staying alone to avoid such a situation is to throw virtual dinner parties, where you eat together over a video call. Or you can tune into virtual concerts by Coldplay’s Chris Martin and John Legend that are being livestreamed on social media as part of the Together, At Home campaign by WHO and Global Citizen. The idea behind the campaign, according to the Global Citizen website, “is to unify people around the world when they may feel isolated by the conditions of Covid-19”.
Even games and quizzes are being organised online for those who miss the offline version. In Bengaluru, board game collective ReRoll is experimenting by substituting their Tabletop Thursdays, the weekly game nights they have been organising for over three years, with free virtual sessions.
“We wanted to put something together for people staying at home on weekdays. We figured anything was better than not having a board game night at all,” says cofounder Karthik Balakrishnan. The first week saw a live-stream of Skribble, a Pictionary-like game, while last Thursday had games as well as an online quiz. There is even an upside to going virtual, says Balakrishnan. “The scope of who can participate becomes much wider. It could be an opportunity for us to reach people we otherwise would never have been able to.”
As leisure options change, so have the systems around work. Several companies have asked employees to work from home to enforce social distancing. But the new arrangements come with their own challenges, as content marketer Priya Ravichandran discovered last week. For instance, a recent video call with colleagues had a surprise participant — her two-year-old son, who decided to sit at her feet. Her two children, says the 37-year-old, are not yet used to seeing her at home all day. “My elder son has a million questions and wants to sit with me. My younger one wants to make sure I’m still at home, so he keeps coming to look at my face,” she says, laughing. But she is hopeful that this is a period of transition, which will get better. The upside, apart from no commutes, has been the ability to focus more deeply on the job at hand and the luxury of home-cooked, sit-down lunches on weekdays.
All of these changes could well induce behavioural shifts, in the long term. “A change of this kind is so unusual and goes so against the general flow of life that it creates a very abrupt kind of counterpoint. If it lasts a long time, it will have a residual effect,” says social commentator Desai.
As we emerge from the Covid-19-induced tunnel of isolation, he says there could be two sets of reactions: those who get back to their old life with a vengeance and those who have an easier, more relaxed idea of life. This would, of course, hinge on the length of the self-imposed quarantine.
In the meanwhile, people continue to adjust to the new normal as best as they can. Mumbai-based Iyer, for one, has taken to practising dance at home, Tai Chi and watching dance videos online. “It is difficult to pass the time now,” she adds. “But we can find novel ways.”