City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Covid Paradox

Living under the Covid cloud for 8 months now has been instructive. From a time when all conversations, both in the public and private spheres tended to centre around the pandemic and its transformative impact on the way we lead our lives, we can see a subtle but clear shift in the discourse. Even as parts of the country are seeing another surge in the number of cases, Covid has become a more constant presence in our lives, having become a new but a regular feature of the circumstances that we need to navigate. Consequently, the prognostications about a post-Covid world are less frequently seen and heard, and the sense that everything is likely to change is less pronounced. Most hearteningly the phrase ‘the new normal’ has not heard for a while.

Part of this is exhaustion. We have stopped fantasising as often about a post-Covid world as it has become clear that there is some way to go before that becomes a reality, the recent advances in vaccines notwithstanding. We are talked out on this subject. As it is, predicting the future is a fool’s errand. Almost all predictions that have been made by futurists in the past look ridiculous today. The future is not a place, but a habitat making it almost impossible to anticipate. Variables combine to form new patterns, and time cascades effects in ways that are almost always surprising.  On the other hand, linear extrapolation, which is the most common and accessible form of future-gazing is not a particularly complicated skill to master. Which is why all such forecasts sound so similar. In the early phase of the pandemic, the unfamiliarity and sheer scale of the impact needed to be made sense of. In talking about the future in dramatic and transformational terms, we were in fact, struggling to come to terms with a vastly altered future which could only be understood by imagining a completely new future.

That phase seems to be passing. We may still not have made sense of the event, but we are now more familiar with its contours. Perhaps a bit too familiar, given the complacency that we are seeing all around us. Curiously, even as the pandemic closes in on us as it takes its toll on people we know and love, we are becoming more indifferent to the risks that exist. More people crowded together on the streets, social gatherings that flout basic safety norms, and a general disdain for masks can be seen all around us. By all accounts, this behaviour is irrational and yet it is increasingly the norm rather than the exception.

And yet, it is perhaps not that difficult to understand. Living under a sense of threat constantly is extremely difficult. We tend to find ways to normalize our lives. Our perception of risk is a function of the unfamiliarity of the source of threat. Which is why, in the very early days of the pandemic, when the infection was limited to extremely few cases and the risk was negligible, we were the most careful. Looking back, it seems absurd that we took all those precautions at a time when we barely had any cases. Even more absurd, is the fact when the worst-case scenarios envisaged then, actually came true, we were on the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum, having lived with the threat for so long.

There are those that actively believe that pandemic has been overhyped, and thus dismiss the need for too many extra precautions. Unlike the US, where it is seen as a matter of infringing on personal liberty, the Indian equivalent has less to do with an active ideological objection, as it has to with indifference. The Indian reality is full of too many risks, and threats abound in our everyday lives. Pollution for instance is a subject that is of concern of a small minority of citizens despite the danger it poses to our well-being. The sources of uncertainty are far too many to keep track of- traffic, lack of basic safeguards in building norms, absence of fire safety measures, lack of medical facilities, the list is a long one. When Covid was exotic, it instilled fear. Now it is simply one more reality to ignore.

Perhaps today is a better time to make sense of the kind of changes we are likely to see in a post-Covid world. We are still very much aware of its significance, without believing that it is capable of changing us in every conceivable way for a long time to come. The knee-jerk sense that the world will be reinvented entirely is giving way to a more nuanced take on the future.

What has become increasingly clear are the things that will not change dramatically. Our need for human contact has in no way been diminished by the forced seclusion that we have experienced for a few months. We revert to familiar habits very quickly and forget too soon. The habits that have changed are those that were already in the process of changing- be it a greater engagement with digital modes of being in consumption, education, entertainment and financial transactions. A greater interest in overall well-being rather than just a narrowly focused concern about curative health is another shift that has accelerated but is one that had already begun to make its presence felt. 

While in the short run, one would arguably return to pre-Covid behavior patterns quite quickly, we are likely to see more fundamental changes play out in the long run. The long-term impact of Covid is likely to be far more significant than its immediate effect in the next year or two. Reactive change tends to feel significant, but is not necessarily durable, but the Covid experience will produce organic shifts in mindsets that will make themselves manifest over a much longer period of time. Covid will be transformative, but not in the way that it was imagined a few months ago.