It has been nearly a week since Kumaran Silks, in the T. Nagar shopping district of Madras, was sealed off. The viral video, of people jostling each other for space and wearing masks around their necks and speaking into each other’s faces, horrified most of its viewers.
But then, is the scene so very different from what we see on the street every day? Spitting on the streets is not yet as common as it used to be, but no one seems to realise that smoking is just as—perhaps even more—dangerous. A couple of weeks ago, I asked a man to stop smoking his biri outside my house, and his response was that it was a “government road”. He had no clue that Covid-19 could spread through smoking, and it was only after I took out my phone and said I would have to film him that he put his biri away. Clearly, he hadn’t got the memo about smoking being banned in public places either.
There is little awareness about Covid and its methods of transmission in spite of the government campaigns. Perhaps no one hears the long message about the danger of Covid spreading anymore because everyone has switched to making WhatsApp calls. Or perhaps they have got so used to it that they don’t hear the words any longer.
We have been counting the months for some time, and the impatience of people to get back to the “old normal” could be their undoing.
There has been a worrying trend of late.
People seem to take offence when one takes safety precautions around them. They are offended when one wipes surfaces that they have touched, or when one asks them to maintain a distance. There are some who are offended when one refuses to visit them, or to entertain a visit home from them.
We need to be paranoid now, more than ever, as norms are getting slowly relaxed, and there is an illusion of things functioning “as before”.
The spread of coronavirus has not deterred wedding celebrations from being held “with precautions”, but then of course, it’s masks off for the photos. It isn’t an ideal situation for a bride and groom to be masked in a photograph they will keep framed in their home forever, but then perhaps guests need not really record their attendance with souvenir photographs? And perhaps the families should consider isolating themselves before and after a wedding so that there is minimal risk of infection? Of course, it would be most sensible to postpone the ceremony until after the threat abates, but then it is rare for us to be sensible where weddings are concerned.
We’re approaching the traditional wedding season across the country, and the festival season has already begun. This naturally entails shopping.
With most people being careful about expenditure—partially because even those who have managed to retain their jobs have had to take pay cuts, and partially because no one wants to be unprepared for the enormous expense that treatment for Covid could incur—it is shops like Kumaran Silks, which can afford to advertise discounts, and online retail that draw customers. But even the giants have not had an easy time of it, with many chains closing some of their operations. The real tragedy is that of the smaller businesses, which depend on footfall in busy spots, and have not been able to sustain themselves through these months. Sadly, they will pay the price for the carelessness of the big ones, and many will be forced to down their shutters forever.
A fiasco like the one we witnessed last week can’t quite be measured. Yes, the building has been sealed off until orders from the Commissioner. But then how do we trace the people who were inside, and the people with whom they have been in contact? How much longer before this and other stores go back to business as usual?
The problem is that, while the notion of maintaining a six-foot-distance is nebulously present, the actual enforcement of this by controlling the number of people allowed into a shop or space at any point of time is not done.
Yes, it has been a financially fraught time, for companies, for traders, for entrepreneurs, for taxi and auto drivers, for the salaried middle-class. There isn’t much the governments can do, either. Of course, perhaps the Centre will be rather more cautious about spending on statues now.
But this is a time when we have to take responsibility for ourselves. We have heard of curfews and travel restrictions and rations at wartime, but no pandemic has caused as much havoc in decades, perhaps in centuries. And it is hard to come to terms with the idea that a tiny little organism that could be defeated by a vaccine continues to work its way through the world. But we must remember that a year, even two years, is not a heavy price to pay for decades of health. It has become quite common for people to say they have given up, and are prepared to be infected, but if you were to speak to someone who has been in the ICU, or someone who has lost a dear one to the infection, perhaps you’d be less prepared.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com