A good time to thinkThe coronavirus has forced us to confront some hard questions, puncturing many long-held beliefs and values.
I had my first full online classes today, and I feel exhausted, which seldom happened when teaching face-to-face classes. I love teaching and enjoy interacting with students while running discussion sessions. But that was not the case today. I saw a few faces on my laptop screen and caught glimpses of a few smiles, heard their greetings, but it was not the same. Because it was the first time I was teaching a synchronous (live) class online, I had been preparing for the whole of last week.
Even though a 'shelter-in-place' (what an expression!) order hadn’t been issued by the governor of Illinois (which came into effect on March 21), I had been socially distancing myself and staying home since at least March 9 except for trips to the grocery store. The wholesale store where I buy quickly ran out of the essentials—rice, isopropyl alcohol, eggs and even bottled water. Townspeople were stocking up and preparing themselves fearing this pandemic.
Hunt for essential goods
While news from Wuhan was a distant drum beat, tidings from the West Coast 2,000 miles away sounded ominous. During spring break (March 9-14), I stayed home and drove to the wholesale store three times and returned empty-handed. Then the coronavirus appeared in Cook County, where the city of Chicago is located. A spouse who had visited China returned and infected her husband. Then somebody who had travelled to Italy returned home and brought the virus with them. Then it came from the cruise ships. But it was still in Cook County. There is a county between Cook and Will county, where I live. So, I thought the virus would take time to cross the in-between county.
My hunt for essential household goods continued. I crossed the county line and went to Patel Brothers, a large Indian grocery chain, located between my county and Cook. The store was well-stocked, and shoppers, mostly South Asians, appeared nonchalant. If there was fear in their hearts, it didn’t show in their faces nor in their carts. Their grocery carts had normal stuff in the usual quantities as though there was no pandemic storm brewing on the near horizon. I was the only one in a mask (leftover masks from my December trip to Kathmandu), and I was the only one who overloaded the cart to the full with Basmati ('grown in the foothills of the Himalayas'), South Indian long-grain, Thai sticky, packets of split and whole lentils, ghee and many more things. Used to seeing Dettol at home in Morang as a sign of health safety, I thought of grabbing a bottle, but then changed my mind. The coronavirus seemed stronger than what Dettol could do.
Since then, we have lived in self-isolation at home. After Harvard’s move to go online and close its dorms, other institutions followed suit. Even though I’m not a Luddite, I find it monotonous, wasteful to spend endless hours learning new technologies. I prefer doing things hands-on, and use technology only when other alternatives run out. So, the whole past week after the spring break, I spent learning various audio-video platforms, such as Zoom, WebEx and Collaborate Ultra so I could at least have a semblance of a face-to-face classroom. After some initial glitches, the classes went fine, but it came with a steep learning curve.
The coronavirus, by its worldwide spread, is demanding new ways of doing and thinking from people and society. It is extending the reach of new technologies in unprecedented ways. While the rest of the global market and stock exchanges are going bust, Silicon Valley is thriving. Facebook and Amazon are hiring aggressively, and the stocks of Zoom, a remote video conferencing platform, are at an all-time high.
The virus is also turning social relations upside-down. Who had thought 'social distancing', 'stay at home' and 'janata curfew' would be desirable, let alone a life-saving necessity? I think it’s for the first time in history that my village in Morang has issued the same order as the governor of Illinois in America simultaneously. Very often you hear from friends, public officials and others 'we are all in it together'. A sense of global togetherness has emerged to fight this virus. Yet, this virus has triggered all kinds of national backlashes, both positive and negative. Positive because only through quarantine, isolation, the closing of borders between states and raising barriers everywhere (Canada-United States, India-Nepal, EU-EU, province-province, city-city, family-family) can this virus be contained and mitigated.
But it has also raised the spectre of racial and national prejudices and phobias. President Trump has called it the 'Chinese virus'; his secretary of state and Foreign Affairs magazine have called it the 'Wuhan virus'. After the assault and abuse of a Singaporean student and others in England, a Jewish man from India’s Manipur was assaulted in Israel by his fellow Jews. And in India, an Indian from the northeast was abused as 'Corona' in Delhi.
This pandemic is the quintessential product of a globalised world and its technological progress—movement of people and viruses and speed of travel enabled by transcontinental flights. And its news spreading even faster through social media and the internet. Yet, it has caught the fast and efficient West flat-footed, and the colonial stereotype of 'slow', inefficient, lazy Asians of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore and even China (after its initial cover-up and fumbling) took drastic measures and controlled it.
The coronavirus has exposed the weaknesses of the most advanced and expensive medical system in the world, which has scrambled for adequate respirators and masks and hospital beds. But it has also exposed the superstitions of cow urine drinking Hindus who had thought their holy urine-drinking party could be a coronavirus killer.
Spend time with family
In the age of the rat race that capitalism demands, the virus has forced people to stay home, spend time with family and not run around from one thing to the next constantly. But, suddenly, people don’t know how to spend time doing nothing; they fear staying home might trigger anxiety, depression, claustrophobia, friction and conflict between family members. In Italy, couples who were married for over five decades couldn’t say goodbye to each other because the wife and sons had to stay quarantined at home and the husband was taken away to the hospital where he died alone. In a country of strong family bonds, Italy saw burial and funerals of only one person because of the infectious nature of this virus.
The coronavirus is a scourge, a global threat—no doubt. Yet, when Covid-19 was raging in China, the satellite pictures showed the air clearing over China, reducing environmental pollution. The virus is a biological, medical entity and should be taken as such in the age of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), yet it has triggered conspiracy theories, superstitious practices and beliefs and prejudices, revealing the fact that the pandemic is both a scientific fact and a geopolitical and psychosocial phenomenon. Filled with contradictions and paradoxes in its wake, the coronavirus has forced us to confront some hard questions, puncturing many long-held beliefs and values. Is unbridled capitalism good? Is progress always for the benefit of the earth and humankind? Must national barriers always remain sacred? The questions have already begun, but the future will depend on the answers we provide.
What do you think?
Dear reader, we’d like to hear from you. We regularly publish letters to the editor on contemporary issues or direct responses to something the Post has recently published. Please send your letters to email@example.com with "Letter to the Editor" in the subject line. Please include your name, location, and a contact address so one of our editors can reach out to you.