Opinion | No, this novel coronavirus won’t transform the world4 min read . Updated: 05 Apr 2020, 10:02 PM IST
The pandemic will not create a new class of the powerful or the rich, nor will it create new heads of state
In the entire history of prose, does this sentence exist in any language: “We are living in very unimportant times"?
Now it does, I know, but before this moment, no one might have said it. People have always believed that they are living through monumental and transformative times. Every generation, even without enduring a pandemic, has an exaggerated reverence for the importance of its own epoch. That is why I do not fully believe the emerging idea that a virus has altered the world forever. The world after the pandemic will be highly recognizable, even “normal".
There will be some minor changes, of course. The cultural dominance of the handshake will fade. The hug of acquaintances and foes will mercifully stop. The great clearing of the throat, which is often taken as a dialect of Malayalam, will not vanish but might attract more attention than before in public spaces. The mask, which was until recently only ubiquitous in East Asia, may sadly become a common urban feature across the world. The gorgeous will somehow continue to look gorgeous in a mask, but the more interesting features of the human face, like the unprovoked seriousness of strangers passing by, their mysterious sorrows and the comedy of noses especially, will be denied to me and others who are interested. Masks might even become mandatory in public transport systems, and anyone who sneezes in a Mumbai local train will face a thousand stares. And a new question will arise: If most of a city is going to be masked, what use are thousands of cameras? Should these devices turn more sophisticated to recognize a person behind a mask? Should people in public spaces be surveyed through their mobile phones?
Many behaviours that were once condemned in India as casteist have returned and may stay. The poor and the rich are both practising untouchability and misanthropic distancing, and they are washing with soap the memories of being in proximity of the other. Perhaps the way to end casteism in India was never trying to abolish some practices but to encourage everyone to practise them. Who would have thought that a day would come when sanitation workers are showered with flowers by a middle-class residential colony, and doctors asked to vacate? The realization that doctors are at high risk of infection may stay long after the epidemic is over. They might become a new social class,to be occasionally felicitated by the clanging of plates but who may find it harder to find homes.
A clever scholar may use these times to question, more convincingly than ever, whether caste was defamed by the colonial woke, whether the caste practices of ancient India were merely an after-effect of past epidemics in eras when castes were just professional guilds.
The entity that has emerged the strongest from the pandemic is the State, which has demonstrated that it can lock down a billion odd people if there is a moral reason.
But the pandemic will leave untouched the most important foundations of the world. It will not create a new class of the powerful or the rich. It will not create new heads of state, nor ruin old billionaires. In fact, the same politics that divided societies has created much of the divisive news emanating from the virus. In the US, because President Donald Trump has expressed his dislike for the idea of a lockdown and intellectuals have supported it, “right-wingers" have been exhorting others to congregate, celebrate, shake hands and hug, and open the economy. In India, it is the opposite. Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Indians to stay indoors, and so the lockdown has the same timbre as patriotism, and intellectuals have been lamenting its effect on the poor.
Modi seems to have become more popular among his fans, with his fatherly appearances on television asking Indians to do stuff in unison, and those who were not given to his charm apparently remain uncharmed. Nothing has changed.
The pandemic reminds us of a fascinating political truth. Politicians can lose their popularity after instituting welfare programmes and building infrastructure like the metro system, but they can become more popular after putting people through hardship for a greater moral good, as in the aftermath of “demonetization" and now this lockdown.
However, India will squander this once-in-a-generation chance to clean itself up. Yet, this too is evidence that covid-19 will not transform us in significant ways.
And, the office will not die. This is largely because bosses are not bosses if they cannot see their subordinates. Also, what people once thought was freedom from office has shown itself to be an extreme sort of boredom in this lockdown. It is as if people have been condemned to domestic life. They will also travel extensively, and not always for excellent reasons.
Corona makes me wonder if it was some ancient pandemic that infected humans with monogamy. Even if that were so, our pandemic will change nothing about sleeping with strangers. Even at the height of the AIDS hysteria, sex with strangers did not diminish; it just became rubber-coated. There will be similar modifications.
And, God will not die. There will be huge religious gatherings and pilgrimages. And pubs will open; there will be concerts and vacations and great collective joys. Because everything that people do, they do because they have nothing better to do. That alone will return to us the world before corona.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.