The COVID-19 pandemic is changing us as individuals and as a society. The implications will be far-reaching and some of them are still beyond our comprehension. But some practices we have either adopted or avoided in the past few days will become part of this new normal.
Here are 10 examples from everyday life. They are a combination of my observations and my tentative hopes.
One, public hygiene will get better. Spitting in public should stop. It is the mother of all droplet infections. Authorities are discouraging and warning against such practices as part of the COVID-19 response and people are desisting from spitting much more consciously. In the days ahead, political, community and religious leaders should condemn public spitting and discredit it. This is an opportunity to exile this filthy habit from India for good.
Two, #WFH will become more than just a hashtag. Work from home offers many advantages to white-collar professionals and companies in the services sector. If so many of us — but admittedly not all of us — have found it possible to work from home in the past three weeks, then why not at other times as well? That question will seriously be asked as individuals and families strive to improve work-life balance. Companies could reduce overheads and find it convenient and cheaper to give employees a good laptop, high-speed internet access and a reliable, paid-for video-conferencing account.
Three, daily commute patterns will change. As an add-on to point two (above), people will become more and more aware of the uselessness of a long daily commute or a flight to another city for just a single meeting of an hour or two; or for a 10-minute hearing in court. People will think twice or even thrice before agreeing to get on an airplane.
More and more meetings — even board meetings of blue-chip corporations — will take place on platforms such as Zoom. The government and judiciary should also be open to such innovations. Driving less and flying less will be eco-friendly and reduce one’s carbon footprint.
Four, social media will not automatically equal idle gossip and silly jokes: Political debates on family WhatsApp groups, humour in the middle of the day from a school WhatsApp group, an endless stream of memes and gifs popping up on one’s cell-phone. All this is so BC (Before Coronavirus). The bulk of my social media messages in the past few weeks have been serious — about the pandemic and its course.
WhatsApp communities and public-service message groups have sprung up in cities and neighbourhoods. They have found a purpose beyond gossip. Some of this will survive into the future.
Five, telemedicine is here to stay. Telemedicine used to mean diagnosing patients in far-flung rural areas and connecting them to city doctors. In the age of social distancing and COVID-19 diagnosis, it has become an urban, middle-class reality, especially for older people. They are using WhatsApp video, FaceTime and similar services to speak to their doctors and avoid going out. This has helped avoid long queues at hospitals.
The potential is immense. I know of a small village in the Sunderbans that does not have physical medical facilities. It now has a digital dispensary where doctors are providing diagnostic and prescriptive services via video conferencing. Moving ahead, I can see doctors giving time slots to patients for in-person consultations as well as video consultations. Think of the savings and the convenience.
Six, personal health and enrichment will be the focus, more than a bank balance. Admittedly, this will be true for only the reasonably well-to-do, but more and more people will spare time for the important things in life — meditation, prayer, exercise and family bonding. There will be a reassessment of priorities post-COVID.
Seven, innovation is coming, and in areas we can’t even imagine. The most innovative and those quickest to adopt change will reap benefits; those stuck in the past will become redundant. This sounds abstract, but what could it mean in real life? The COVID-19 episode will hurt certain businesses and incentivise others (for example, eat-in restaurants versus cloud kitchens and takeaways; or Uber/Ola versus Zoom). It will both create and destroy jobs. Only the most nimble companies and individuals will survive.
Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression lasted over a decade. This period gave rise to the ballpoint point, nylon and the first working helicopter. Some of this was coincidental, some of it connected to needs that arose in the new circumstances. New technologies — from medical services delivery to drone-based delivery, from virus-immune robots that do manual labour to 4D printing of ventilators — could result.
Eight, how will we interact socially? Going to movies or bars, hanging out at the mall, the mithai dukaan, chaat shop or the club, will all decline for some time to come. People will distrust crowds. Large parties will be less likely; small get-togethers may be more popular. For a social people with extended families, what will all this mean for us Indians?
Nine, cleanliness is next to godliness — we’ve finally realised it. People are using masks. They are not sneezing in the open and are covering their mouths and noses. Tissues are being discovered or rediscovered. Cleaning surfaces, wiping containers and washing hands frequently are becoming welcome habits.
Ten, investment in healthcare infrastructure is bound to improve. At 2.5 per 1,000 people, Bengal already has the highest bed-to-people ratio in the country. Fifty hospitals, two to three in each of the 22 districts of the state, have been set up and are being put to good use as part of the COVID-19 response. This is just one example and there are so many nationwide.
There is a serious attempt to ramp up healthcare capacities, including hospital beds and isolation units. Manufacturing of equipment, from surgical masks to PPEs, is being pushed. All this will serve us in the future, as part of the COVID-19 legacy.
[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Wednesday, April 15, 2020]