Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Light in the Darkness

By Dilip Bobb

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Over the past month, I have been receiving phone and video calls from people I haven’t communicated with for decades. We lost touch after they all moved to different cities and continents. One is now in Toronto, the other in London, a third in Paris, and another one closer home, in Agra. They are all under lockdown and I am guessing that the sense of isolation and the comparative loneliness has inspired a subliminal urge for companionship. Also, a need to reconnect with the past, perhaps as a reminder of what friendship and camaraderie really mean, something we have all lost out on in the mindless sprint on the treadmill of modern life. Research shows that people across the world have used the opportunity to reconnect with friends and loved ones over phone or video calls. The video chat app Houseparty, went from 3,955 downloads on March 16 to 81,858 in just one week. Mobile calls have doubled after the global lockdown and even landlines are making a comeback after gathering dust in a forgotten corner of the house. One global survey found that people were also talking more, as much as 33 percent longer than before the lockdown.

That sense of reaching out and reconnecting is one positive outcome amid the daily deluge of disaster and darkness. Hopefully, it may be part of the recalibration of life’s priorities we will all undergo once this Covid madness is behind us. What the outbreak and lockdown have done is to prompt all of us to look at our lives with a fresh perspective. There is much we have learned in this challenging, stressful situation—social responsibility, resilience, compassion, and kindness, even the benefits of proper hygiene, a fine for spitting has to be the most progressive initiative for India in recent times. Social distancing, despite the chaos and ugliness of the crowds outside liquor shops, may even instill a sense of discipline, something that is alien to most Indians outside the armed forces. There is, of course, no denying that lockdown comes with a host of negative factors—stress, anxiety, mental health issues, a sense of mortality, financial and job insecurity, domestic abuse and related problems. With some 5 billion people around the world in some kind of lockdown, this is the largest psychological experiment ever undertaken. Many will emerge mentally battered by the experience but equally, a number may emerge stronger and more resilient, and certainly with greater empathy and feelings for our fellow countrymen and women, especially the poor and vulnerable. Ordinary citizens across the country have emerged to feed the poor and donate for their wellbeing. Musicians, actors, celebrities and others are coming together across the world in unprecedented numbers to arrange online concerts and telethons to raise money for those in distress. One such Bollywood-dominated initiative last weekend also featured overseas stars like Mick Jagger and Will Smith who called themselves friends of India. That outpouring of humanity and oneness has brought the world closer together like never before, and the effect of that could linger for a long time.

This pandemic has also bridged the divide between the rich and poor—everyone is equally vulnerable, a situation that has give rise to the oft-heard phrase: we are all in this together.  Technology has been the greatest asset for us all in lockdown mode. Long lost friends have started or joined new groups on social media, while WFH (Work From Home) is the signature acronym of these troubled times. For many of us, technology has opened up a new world, video conferences, webinars, even the world’s leaders have been communicating on video platforms, a new experience for all of them, but so more environment-friendly minus all those transcontinental flights. “Time will tell if these changes are permanent, but many precedents have been made in the areas of distance learning, online shopping – on a very large scale – videoconferencing, collaborative work and content sharing,” says Craig Labovitz, CTO for Nokia Deepfield.

Here’s another unintended benefit. With millions of people stuck in isolation, many are using the opportunity to get creative. Many have adopted new hobbies, and are setting up kitchen gardens and learning how to cook. The absence of domestic staff has also inspired many of us to appreciate the dignity of labour. On an intellectual level, it has provided an opportunity to read more books, perhaps ones we would never have had the time or inclination for earlier. Imagine the unexpected joy of hearing world famous opera singer Andrea Bocelli’s “Music for Hope”’ concert echoing across a deserted church in Milan. Over 3.4 million viewers worldwide tuned in to his YouTube performance, the largest audience for a classical music event ever. I have also been privileged to conduct a virtual tour of the world’s biggest galleries, including the famous paintings of the Louvre in Paris and the classic sculptures of the Vatican museum, from the comfort of my couch. Without the lockdown, none of this would have been possible, and certainly not for free. In the scientific arena, the pandemic has led to innovative ideas, medical breakthroughs and speeded up research and possible permanent cures for such outbreaks.

Countries will emerge from this with a great sense of social responsibility and a sharper focus on healthcare and disaster relief, as well as the environment. One of the most visible outcomes of the pandemic has been the energizing sight of muddy rivers turning crystal clear, the air becoming breathable and birds and wildlife reclaiming the land they were evicted from.  It is evident that the enforced lack of vehicles, aircrafts and trains is already had a positive impact on the planet. It could, in some optimistic scenario, become a call for global action and provide a future blueprint for the kind of collective behavior that could be beneficial to people, the planet, and the economy. In India, the COVID-19 curfew has seen the lowest traffic pollution levels on record. If even a quarter of these commuters kept on working from home, the environmental impact would be huge. In New Delhi, official data shows the average concentration of PM 2.5 plunged by 71% in the space of a week. The lessons are obvious, and there to be learnt.

Above all, the prolonged pause in our lives—the longest any of us have experienced—has brought with it questions about what will be deemed necessary and what we can do without. Reckless spending and filling our homes and closets with things we don’t really need will slow, even stop. International travel, especially business travel, is certain to be curtailed in post-Covid times now that we know what can be accomplished via videoconferencing or webcam. Even holiday travel could be curtailed as humans are forced to save for a stormy day, and now they have got used to staying in touch with friends and family using online tools, such as Skype, Zoom and Houseparty. The British author, Sir Michael Morpurgo, recently wrote that with the cooperation he sees around, “with people learning to appreciate others’, he is convinced that the post-Covid world will be a much kinder, gentler one. The pandemic has been such a life-changing moment for everyone, that he could easily be right.

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