S01E07: Connection In The Time Of Corona

Hands join together to form a heart. On the left, it says: Season 1 with Deepika and Arpita. Episode 7: Connection in the time of corona

Deepika: A few weeks ago, the core team of The CurioCity Collective had gathered in Bangalore to plan and think about how to extend our work of building communities of care and practice. It was still relatively early in the cycle of the virus. We were reading about its spread in other countries and it had just about made its entry into India. And even though we anticipated the kinds of measures that might be put in place in the country, I don’t think any of us can claim that we were actually prepared for how it’s been unfolding. This is maybe the difference between knowing and experiencing something. 

It’s now day 8 of the lockdown in India and suffice to say, life as we know it has changed pretty rapidly these past few weeks! 

So we’re doing things a little differently this month of April, because we’re all homebound in different cities and felt that we needed to respond to the situation we find ourselves in. So this month, we’re shifting out of our usual format – and we’re going to try to look at what living in the time of Covid-19   or the Corona virus is bringing up, and just how that might be connected to the larger idea of human and planetary well-being.

Also, most importantly, here at TCC we want our reflections and actions to be in sync – so we asked ourselves this additional  question: When we’re all physically apart, what does it mean to practice care and connection? 

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But first I want to backtrack a little to March 19.

I had just returned to Mumbai from Bangalore. (And yes, I took the recommended precautions and stayed home and isolated myself). 

Now this was a few days before all international flights were cancelled and shortly after that all domestic flights were grounded.

On landing in Mumbai, my taxi driver looked relieved to see me. And as soon as we set out, he struck up a conversation, asking me how many people were on my flight. 

I remembered the photograph I’d taken and sent to my parents of row upon row of empty seats. And I told told him there were around 25. 

He was quiet for a moment and then he said that he’d been waiting at the airport since midnight yesterday, and I was finally his first passenger. 

I glanced at the time and it was 2pm. So basically that meant a 14 hour wait for him. And then I remembered the number on the booking counter at the airport which said that 47 cars were still waiting for passengers. 

There was a quiet acknowledgment then that everything is shutting down. From work places, to shops, to transportation. Literally, life as we know it. And with everything that is pulling down its shutters, uncertainty and fear of what to expect. 

As we were driving down, he pointed towards this blur of high rises, and said to me: 

Iss bimari ko paise so koi lena dena nahi hai. Isse koi farak nahin padta ke kaun ameer hai aur kaun gareeb. Ye hindu-muslim ki parwah nahi karthi. Saare neta log bas humein ek doosre ke khilaf karna chahthe hain. Magar ye corona hinduon ya musalmanon ko nahi dhoond rahi hai. Shayad is sabh ke guzar jaane ke baad hum school aur hospital ko banane pe dhyaan denge.’

And he put it very simply that the virus doesn’t care about money, or who has money. It doesn’t care about who belongs to which religion. So while politicians are busy going around creating divisions, it’s not going around choosing one or the other community. What I found interesting what that he said, maybe after this, they’ll spend time and energy and money on focusing on what’s important like education and health.

At home later, I found myself chewing on what he said. Specifically, to the reference he made to deepening divisions between communities over the past couple of years along religious and caste lines. 

I’d studied history in college and it allowed me to consider for the first time, how violence was closely intertwined with identity politics. At different times in history across the world, this has been along racial, religious or social and cultural identities. In India, for instance, we’ve seen this play out in terms of violence between Hindus and Muslims, against Dalits, women, and tribal groups. 

Much of the literature on the subject describes a process called ‘othering’. Or as John Powell, Director at the Hass Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berekely, puts it:

Othering is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group. 

Or to put it differently, it’s a process which narrowly defines who qualifies as a full member of society. Everyone left out of this definition is basically ‘othered’. It then becomes an us-versus-them narrative. Who gets defined as the ‘other’ is something that changes from place to place. It could be language, race, nationality, or religion. And then consequently, care and protection is extended towards only those who are part of the ‘us’. 

Nicholas A. Christakis, sociologist and physician, writes in his book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Seeing people only as members of groups is inherently reductionist and dehumanizing […] People in crowds often act in thoughtless ways—shouting profanities, destroying property, throwing bricks, threatening others. This can come about partly because of a process known to psychologists as deindividuation: people begin to lose their self-awareness and sense of individual agency as they identify more strongly with the group, which often leads to antisocial behaviours they would never consider if they were acting alone. They can form a mob, cease to think for themselves, lose their moral compass, and adopt a classic us- versus-them stance that brooks no shared understanding.

What he’s saying is that when you look at a person with the singular notion of their belonging to a particular group and then go on to make assumptions about that group, you lose sight of the detail. You lose the individual and any connection you might have with that person. And so it becomes easier to commit violence because you’re no longer viewing them as another human being.

In the second half of 2019 in India, with he Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register for Citizens, what would otherwise seem as an academic conversation on terms of othering and identity and politics has  actually become quite real for many of us.  Every single day we were posed with questions of: who is an Indian and who is the ‘other’ or non-Indian.

And this isn’t something that’s just playing out in India. World over, we’re seeing increasing incidents of this othering. In neighbouring Myanmar, thousands of Rohingyas have been driven from their homes and denied full citizenship. In the US, neo-Nazis have been marching through the streets of Charlottesville in the state of Virginia and the US President has been wanting to build a wall at the US-Mexico border. 

The agenda is the same—creation and use of fear to breed resentment against those deemed the ‘other’. And it’s rhetoric and language used to do this is amplified by political parties and media houses.

In many ways,  the coronavirus has exposed and laid bare some of these false separations that we’ve created. Because at a fundamental level, it challenges these divisions because a virus itself doesn’t discriminate. Or as the taxi driver put it: Corona is not going around seeing who is Hindu or Muslim. It’s not choosing whose body will be affected based on religion, wealth, class, caste or colour. In that respect, it’s reminding us that we’re all part of this one large shared ecosystem. So we might have drawn borders across the physical and social world but the speed and virulence with which it’s spreading reflects utter contempt for all these imagined boundaries we’ve drawn up. 

In the last week alone, whether it’s Delhi, Bangalore, London, or friends in Oslo or New York, everyone who has reached out or who I’ve checked in on are experiencing similar states of isolation in lockdown. There’s uncertainty, fear, restlessness, anger. Worry for grandparents and those living with complicated medical issues. And that shared fear and worry is also an experience that’s common to all of us. 

Now it’s ironic that social distancing is a lesson in interconnectedness. Because we’re now responsible not just for our own health, but literally every decision we take affects not just those closest to us, but also neighbours, and community members like the vegetable shop I visit, or the chaiwala or the chemist. That’s how closely all of us are connected .

So at one level, we’re all facing the same threat and in that sameness is evidence of our shared humanity. But that connection is also immensely powerful given that it can influence people up to three degrees away. Christakis studies this in his book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. He uses an example saying:

We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend gained weight, you gained weight. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend stopped smoking, you stopped smoking. And we discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend became happy, you became happy.

By that argument, influence can be used to shape a response, even touching the life of someone you don’t directly know or that you normally would come in contact with. What you might be wondering is, what does this have to do with responding to a pandemic? Looking at this at the level of a social network, it throws up immense possibilities: 

Most of us are already aware of the direct effect we have on our friends and family; our actions can make them happy or sad, healthy or sick, even rich or poor. But we rarely consider that everything we think, feel, do, or say can spread far beyond the people we know. Conversely, our friends and family serve as conduits for us to be influenced by hundreds or even thousands of other people. In a kind of social chain reaction, we can be deeply affected by events we do not witness that happen to people we do not know. It is as if we can feel the pulse of the social world around us and respond to its persistent rhythms. As part of a social network, we transcend ourselves, for good or ill, and become a part of something much larger. We are connected.

So even though we might seem separated by the limits of our bodies – the networks that we inhabit are alive and binding us together in this shared experience of the world. What we choose to do with this connection is key. Will it reaffirm our shared humanity or reinforce existing biases and deepen disparity?

Even as it’s evident that the virus doesn’t have favourites, we’re already seeing old patterns of separation and discrimination which are already glaringly visible in terms of the human response to the virus in India. 

At a national level, in terms of government planning, there’s been complete disregard for the lives and lived realities of daily wage and migrant workers. Soon after the nation-wide lockdown was announced on March 24, reports began coming in of people having to walk over hundreds and hundreds of kilometres to go back to their villages. 

NEWS CLIP: Exodus that hasn’t been seen in India in decades. Thousands of migrant workers are on the move. Most of them on foot. Among them, Yogesh Yadav who is walking 650km on foot after the clothing shop he worked as a tailor was closed. Human rights groups say that India’s lockdown has disproportionately affected migrants and daily wage workers.

Deepika: Now some would argue that they were meant to stay in cities that they’d come to find work in. But in the absence of planning, in the absence of shelters, places they could go to stay, in the absence of organisation of food, and cash transfers being made to alleviate their everyday situation, what were people to do?

In cities, in the last week alone, healthcare professionals have been asked to vacate rented accommodation for fear of their spreading the virus. Similar treatment has been meted out to airline staff who have been stigmatised and harassed by neighbours. In Delhi, a young woman from Manipur was spat on and called ‘Corona’, in Mysore, young men from Nagaland were refused entry into a grocery store. 

NEWS CLIP: Students from the North-East stay here. You’ve heard now how the Corona virus has spread everywhere. It’s not like everyone says it, but some people here call us ‘Corona virus’. It happens when we go out to look for a place to rent, sometimes it’s shouted on the street. It’s used to taunt us. We have no relation to the virus. It’s come from China. Our looks might resemble the Chinese but we have no connection to China or the Corona virus. We’re from the North East.

Deepika: At another level, class biases are playing out with many residents in housing societies even refusing to pay monthly wages to their household help and talking about the virus spreading through ‘their unhygienic ways’. 

And this isn’t only India’s story. The US has seen a spike in incidents of discrimination and stigma against persons of Asian descent, those with a travel history and health care professionals. 

What we’re faced with in terms of the pandemic isn’t a first in human history.

Over the past few days, similarities have been drawn between the corona virus and the 1918 influenza epidemic, more popularly known by what historian Nancy K. Bristow argues is the misnomer of the Spanish flu. Author of the book, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, she looks at the national amnesia around the epidemic and the social and cultural shape that it took. 

A century ago, it was one of the deadliest in human history, killing more than 50 million people around the world. In many ways, there are comparisons to be made—the rampant fear, stockpiling of food and medicine and avoidance of gatherings. You’d imagine that because it affected those in the 20-40 age group of workers and mothers, it would change how life would be lived in the aftermath. Yet, her research finds that it didn’t. In fact it’s the opposite. In many ways it even strengthened the status quo. Bristow says:

If you’re living on the edge and poverty is a short step away, the pandemic is enough to throw you into really serious deprivation. For those in the most fragile circumstances in terms of socioeconomic dynamics […], the pandemic only made everything worse.

Connection and the power of influence at the time, really didn’t shift in favour of challenging old divisions. 

We’re again being challenged to look at these borders and demarcations. Because wherever and whoever you are, and whatever life you lead, the biggest concern in this moment is safety. And not just safety for our loved but but literally care and concern for anyone who crosses our path, because the thing is, we’re all in this together. We’re unified in our shared experience of wanting to protect. Our behaviour affects the safety of others. But it’s not just the negative that flows through a network. It’s also the positive. 

Faced with a pandemic that requires distance and avoidance of gatherings, a question I find myself circling back to is: how do I choose how to respond to this? In the face of shared humanity, is it possible to rethink and rewire patterns of separation and division? 

Already, even in the face of high levels of anxiety, people are responding with hope. For elderly people in their vicinity, young people have organised to deliver groceries, and cooked meals are being served to senior citizens so that they don’t have to take care of themselves.

NEWS CLIP: With senior citizens some of the most anxious and vulnerable sections across the country, an NGO in Mumbai is setting a beautiful example. Selfless samaritans have taken it upon themselves to supply food to those living alone. NGO called Round table India has organised 200 volunteers to target different parts of Mumbai. Using social media, they are pinpointing apartment complexes and getting food delivered to senior citizens living alone there.

Deepika: In another instance, food and water is being refilled on a street where people take their dogs out for a walk, so that stray animals are not left hungry. 

NEWS CLIP: Let’s never forget, that while humans are suffering urban animals like stray dogs are also left in a lurch. Meet Dharmendra, a Delhi resident who cooks meals and then sets off on a motorcycle to deliver this. Dharmendra makes food that the dogs will actually relish.

Deepika: In Mumbai, to ensure that the supply of chai doesn’t stop for watchmen who are still continuing to provide services to housing societies, members of the community take a flask of tea around to them three times a day. So in these small ways, its about paying attention to people in and around you and being able to extend care to them and for them. In addition to this, crowdsourcing efforts are also underway to extend support for daily wage workers and migrant workers who are walking hundreds of kilometres to get home. 

For me, knowing that these efforts are also underway feels far more nourishing than tracking the Covid-19 death count and being gripped by fear. 

What’s also interesting is that none of these efforts have been organised by the state. What they reflect instead is what Christakis says is ‘innate proclivities that reflect our natural social state, a state that is, as it turns out, primarily good, practically and even morally.’

In his research studying human societies, Christakis explicitly points out that though we often tend to remember violent and the gory parts of our history, alongside that there also exists this very real lived experience of deep compassion and kindness.

In different ways, all of us are dealing with enormous change and uncertainty. Yet, even physically cut off from each other, our social network offers immense possibility to practice shared humanity, to build communities of care, and to conduct acts of kindness and generosity. Even as we ask questions of our government and seek social justice and equality in how they respond to this, just as critical are these acts of humanity. 

I wanted to leave you with this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye which speaks exactly to that.

Kindness

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Outro: This month we will be sharing and curating a whole host of organisations and groups that are working towards alleviating the suffering and loss caused by the pandemic. This will include a wide variety of categories from mental health support, to food and economic support across different cities; we will also be curating different resources across mediums to help continue the reflection process we hope to embark on through these days of lockdown – do keep in touch with our social media spaces. You can access them at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

In our next special episode, we continue to look at connection in the times of the coronavirus but this time at a planetary level. Don’t forget to subscribe to The Curio-city Collective podcast at anchor or wherever you listen to podcasts, to keep up with this series!  

Credits: Special thanks to Ishwar Shankar and Gowri Omanakuttan at BRC for lending us their voices for this episode. This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Arpita Joshi and produced by the Bangalore Recording Company.  

Sources for clips: