Life under the virusHybrid has become the dominant modality of pedagogy in the age of Covid-19.
We all are adjusting to the environment created by the novel coronavirus. Last March, when the virus suddenly hit the headlines and surreptitiously crawled into our neighbourhoods, it felt like some inevitable doom and gloom had descended upon us and we took cover even before the government’s shelter-in-place order. But, six months later, people have learned to function in the new modified environment. For example, if you look inside my car, you will see half a gallon of alcohol sitting in the side console of my trunk, a small bottle of hand sanitiser and a pack of masks in the front console, including some loose masks scattered here and there. I don’t need to hoard supplies in my house anymore. After the initial shocks and disruption of supply chains that created scarcity last March and April, essential consumer and health safety goods are available in the stores.
For my office, where I go three or four times a week, the university has given us hand sanitisers, three different kinds of masks (one with the university’s name on it), a box of tissue paper, a box of gloves, a plastic bag with all kind of nick-knacks, such as an all-purpose plastic tool that can open doors, push elevator buttons, lift bags and so on without touching. And I have even a transparent mask with nose foam and chin cushions designed to fit the nose and the chin. I have half a gallon of alcohol and a Lysol spray sitting on my bookshelf; every time I go to my office, I spray the Lysol on the doorknobs and sanitise the table and desks.
Before going to the university, I open the university app, fill out the Covid-19 symptom reporting form and before entering a class, I scan the safety clearance QR code that clears me and students to get into the classroom. Benches and desks have been arranged in A and B seating format. In both my classes, students have been assigned B seating for social distancing. And once students occupy their seats at the start of the semester, they can’t change it throughout the semester nor can they leave their seats and move around while they are seated in class. I reported the class seating chart with students’ names to the administration so that if anybody gets the virus, students seating next to them are contact traced and quarantined. They wear cloth masks and I wear my transparent mask. I walk side to side while talking and listening but I can’t cross the red line to go near students. Each class meets face-to-face once a week and the rest of the time it’s either Zoom or asynchronous online instruction through Blackboard Learn, email, etc. The word hybrid, more in circulation in my discipline of postcolonial studies, has become the dominant modality of pedagogy in the age of Covid-19.
I have one or two students who have been exposed to the coronavirus. So, they join the class on face-to-face days through a Zoom connection on my laptop, which faces the whiteboard when I’m talking and writing on the board and the class when they have to present. Last week, when a student presented, the whole class could hear him without any problem. Initially, I had some problem recognising the faces of students with masks on. So, I gave them each a sheet of paper to write names and put it up in front to help me call their names while discussing something. But now, even with faces masked, I recognise them from other features. Last March and April, suddenly not interacting face-to-face became traumatic both to them and to me and fatigue from virtual meetings set in fast. But now, with in-class restrictions on movement in place, group video conferencing and chatting seems better for group work than an in-person class.
I do grocery shopping with my mask on, and when I bring the grocery bags to the car, open the trunk and soak my hands with alcohol before entering the car. If I don’t have a mask on while I’m out of my car or office (which happens often, due to my forgetfulness), I feel unsafe and rush back to get my mask and feel safe.
The mass exodus of migrant workers on foot from the cities in India and Nepal to go to their villages that broke our hearts last March and April seems to be in reverse gear now. After months of stay in their villages, they are on their way to the big cities. More than four hundred thousand Nepali migrant workers have crossed the border to go back to their workplaces in India. The young men from my village, who had returned from Ahmedabad in March and April, are back at work. Everybody is adjusting to the new normal. And to represent this tug-of-war existence between the big cities and rural homes, a Bhojpuri rap song called Bambai Main Ka Ba (what is there in Bombay?) has gone viral on social media. Through various tropes of family, village joy and pain and city humiliation, the migrant worker male narrator gives voice to his dilemma and angst—caught as he is between the two spaces of life and work.
Yet, people are getting sick and many are dying. Although all kinds of wild health pronouncements haven’t ceased, people believe less in them. While his inefficiency, political intrigues and general mismanagement have not ceased, Prime Minister Oli issues fewer wild health pronouncements than before. Maybe a sign that he knows that his witticisms have grown stale and are no longer welcome. Authoritarian-leaning rulers in many countries are on a similar path more or less. One hopes their charms wear off on people and they are sent packing when elections come by next time around.
So, life under coronavirus restrictions has become the new normal. We have learned to function once again with restrictions, suffering and uncertainty. Life itself has become imitative of the best of literature, giving both the rich and the poor a taste of the human condition (although the portion of suffering is disproportionately more for the disadvantaged). Science still lives in its promise of a vaccine. But life goes on, suffering, adjusting, in laughter and tears, stealing glimpses of beauty and joy wherever it can.