Sending love and smiles in times of COVID-19
Till the time there’s protection available, we need to keep doing what science asks of us—stay away from friends and family no matter how much it hurts.
A good friend baked cookies with a recipe I sent her last week, and sent me a picture. They looked scrumptious. Yesterday, she baked them again—on popular demand, she said—and I was caught up in this longing to go see her, hang around her cookie-smelling home. She lives far away, but last year when I was criss-crossing India, it was just a short flight to her place. A slightly unhinged individual like me could conceivably make a quick trip across, based on a sudden fancy. But the distances are larger now. There are quarantines, medical tests, masks and shields.
There’s distance everywhere. The other day, I led an online workshop and while talking to the blind, yet all-seeing, judging, eye of the camera, I tried and failed to create the zing of energy a real classroom brings—the exchanges in a room full of opinionated, voice-y writers, the tossing back and forth of ideas that somehow linger like afterthoughts in the air.
Till the time there’s protection available, we need to keep doing what science asks of us—stay away from friends and family no matter how much it hurts. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen my peers lose their parents, and grieve long-distance. I’ve watched families trying to stay connected over video calls. Friends have contracted the infection, and quarantined themselves. Students and teachers have been trying to move onward in online classrooms for quite a while now. Weddings are limited to small groups, watched on livestreams across timezones.
In March, I objected to the term ‘social distancing’. I’ve been calling it ‘safety distancing’. But over the last few months I’ve come to realise that the common terminology has its merit: it depicts the truth for what it is. We have all experienced this separation in the last few months, and it has been social. In some ways, this isolation is one step further from what had already crept up on us, thanks to our love for technology and convenience.
As a child, I saw my first telephone (outside of a television or movie screen) when I was about 12 years old. Same for TV. Families dropped by each other’s homes, and expected to be entertained. There was no way to let anyone know ahead of time, and that was that. When I left home for college, my family and I saw each other once a year, and spoke sporadically on the telephone. We bought everything in small shops, where we knew the person selling us the goods or groceries, and asked after their families.
These days, there are so many ways to stay connected. Video calls. Social media. We now have online shopping. We can access events from across the world. In the past months, I’ve been in family Zoom calls, watched Malaysian theatre, enjoyed a concert in Germany, attended talks and workshops in the US. These times of distancing would possibly have been more difficult in my childhood days when my parents communicated with theirs via postcards.
I’m wondering though whether these screens, being able to see and hear but not touch or experience, are adding to our sense of isolation—an increased connect, ironically adding to the sense of unbearable disconnect? We’ve seen this in nation after nation—once a populace has a handle on the pandemic, back it goes to increased socialising. The numbers rise again. People don’t care that they’re exposing themselves, or others, to potential risks. All that’s important is to come together—be it over food, or cultural events. They want to fling away masks and hug, results be damned.
A part of me judges these people, their reckless, almost criminal negligence, but I also understand. It is human nature to want to gather around, especially after enforced isolation. I’m not about to do it, but like everyone else, I too dream of vacations, of visits to friends and family. I want to hop on a plane tomorrow and get my incredulous friend to bake me a new batch of cookies. Until that can happen though, here’s to connects online, to keeping each other in our hearts and conversations. To holding on to the belief that the shortest distance between two people is love and a smile, and no one can take that away from us.
Damyanti Biswas Twitter: @damyantig
Author and activist