Very few people actually enjoy elbowing their way into a crowded bus or train, but this seems to be like a faraway nightmare. Paradoxically, it’s one we’re sorry we won’t be able to get into again in the near future. Perhaps we look back with nostalgia at how we used to queue for hours to get a foot in the door at full cinema halls, theatres, exhibitions, etc. How patiently people waited for more than an hour outside tourist traps such as the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versaille, or the London Eye. Ar e many pickpockets out of business? Perhaps like burglars, since most people are stuck at home these days. It’s more difficult for office workers to charge a long business lunch with a potential ‘client ’ to company expenses, as now they have to cater to their own dietary needs at home. And executives have had to come up with their own version s of (barely edible) pizzas, learn how to change the bag in their vacuum cleaners, or to tango with the fidgety iron they’d been meaning to replace for ages. Since domestic help had been limited or even banned by State edict.
The pandemic has forced us to hit the reset button in many aspects of our lives: daily routines, multi-tasking, relationships, etc. Forced to share space 24/7 with family, we have had to re-evaluate our bonds with them. Parents, especially fathers can now spend more time with their kids. Some couples have finally found time for each other as their hectic schedules eased up. A bit like what is supposed to happen at the end of fairy tales. And now they finally had time to have dinner together without any devices at hand, and lived happily ever after. Perhaps we’d all entered the land of the Lotus Eaters, as the days and weeks went by in a haze, every day was as close to Sunday as it could be. Though it’s not winter, and spring this year has been a most pleasant one, most human activities have been gelled. It’s like Frozen without all the snow (or any snowmen). Yet, la, la, land had become a bit boring for some, and stressful for many.
A bit too much, perhaps? For example, enduring annoying habits, or listening to a never-ending stream of inane comments. Perhaps hearing endless litanies of problems that my neighbour’s mother had had to endure. She didn’t dare ask her mum, ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?’ They remain as fresh for her like yesterday’s lettuce that she grew in her garden once upon a memory far, far away. Yet, should one dare to eat any salad today? Unle ss it can be semi-cooked. Long enough to kill that horribly creepy, invisible virus.
The late Stephen Hawking was of the opinion that human beings are organic robots. If so, who can reset our buttons? Though the mainstream media has been pushing our fear button, long and hard, the 2020 quarantine can be used to reassess our beliefs and attitude in life. It seems we have to do the task of resetting our buttons ourselves if we wish to do so.
Should we continue to ride on the merry-go-round of consuming goods, consuming more goods and so on, powered by the gigantic advertising, media and entertainment industries, or now that the merry-go-round has slowed down, should we take the time to step off it, to evaluate if this rat race will lead us anywhere meaningful? Or will we stay stuck in the Minota ur’s maze? Though most basic needs are met in the First World, perhaps it’s the fear of obscurity, or of being forgotten that pushes many people to buy the biggest houses, fanciest cars, or flashiest devices that they can afford, and to show it all off through Social Media. Not to mention beach holidays in expensive resorts where pampering one’s body is all that counts. There are many Peter Pans who refuse to grow up and become ecologically responsible, citizens with sustainable consumer habits.
Horror stories have emerged from colleagues who had to manage energetic under 12s whilst trying not to burst out of the virtual high-pressure cooker that office work has become. However, these stories don’t hold much water, in countries such as India, for example. Women routinely multi-task from helping kids with mountain loads of home-work, while cooking or cleaning without the aid of appliances, at the same time negotiating through their offices, navigating unseen lines of unwritten social rules and family obligations. On top of that, they are supposed to look good to maintain the family name and honour, no matter how humble that family might be.
The quarantine had turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as one didn’t have to bother with the superficial aspects of one’s appearance, apart from basic hygiene. One wonders why after a break of two years, one had bought so many clothes in the last sale which had been the best in recent years. Did chains of medium-priced clothes have an intuition that their stores would be closed for weeks on end, and were clearing their stock at low prices (not seen for many years)? On the other hand, the fashion style suited one’s needs in terms of length and colours, and therefore this extra expenditure and rampant, yet discounted consumerism seemed to be justified at that time. Besides, due to taking care of a parent, cooking time-consuming meals, and keeping her company, one had been in semi-quarantine for the last few years. Now it looks like Cinderella has too many low-priced, yet creative outfits, with no balls, parties, cafe hang-outs or even an office to go to.
Perhaps Cinderella should have tried to reset her button on how to deal with nightmares of a reduce d or zero income once the pandemic eases up, and SMEs start to collapse. This lock-down has turned out to be one of the most effective ways to keep the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ at home in France. Deserted capitals such as Paris didn’t bode well for the economy of the country.
Many people will have to re-position themselves in the job market, acquire new competences, rebuild dormant skills, or go for their dreams in bold, new ventures. Perhaps we’ll realize that Aladdin’s Cave is our own potential that we can discover, and build ourselves. The real treasure has always been inside.
Some will get the courage to explore their creativity, or to find new ways to fulfill their dreams, while filling their pockets. Others may sink in a morass of apathy. What will make the difference between these two approaches to life? Motivation and self-esteem are the two wheels on which we could ride the bicycle to work, how we perceive ourselves outside, and function in relation to others. Those who’ve been on benefits for a long time, perhaps little will change, except that they ’ll now have to think about living on even more reduced means, or learning on how to survive on the streets. Except that in the First World, they may get to contemplate on the joys of being isolated in the concrete tower of a hotel. Unlike slum dwellers in the Third World, whose best hope of avoiding these deadly germs is that the summer heat might kill them off.
Though we may have too much time on our hands, as our busyness can no longer shield us from our own impending sense of doom, we tend not to delve too much into thoughts such as the meaning of life and all that jazz. Some people are taking advantage of this social downtime to do spring cleaning with the same fervour as Cinderella’s wicked step-mother who replaced Cinderella’s mother.
Perhaps some extroverts feel like Cinderella who couldn’t go to the ball. Except that this time the entire ball has been postponed to who knows when. Undaunted, some extroverts see this as an excellent opportunity to proliferate Social Media with their skills of singing, or dancing like monkeys to the tune of silliness. Others pass on memes, silly jokes, inane challenges, or biased opinions, as they have to continuously broadcast something to the world, even if they didn’t invent it, or create it themselves.
Anyone who catches their Social Media thread is welcome to hang on to it, to respond, and to spread these virtual viruses, irrespective of the fact that in order to store all these bytes of unnecessary information, huge servers using up enormous amounts of electricity are needed. Talk about an environment-friendly approach by millennials who stack up millions of Social Media posts, and messages daily, without thinking about where it’s being stored, and how many different kinds of resources are needed to do so. How is the electricity being produced, to keep these servers going, and what parts of these huge silicon-based machines are bio-degradable, if at all?
We will all have re-think and re-negotiate intricately on all fronts in the current lockdown, including with random strangers on the bus. Half-empty buses reveal the crazies who didn’t believe in social distancing. Even if they don’t care to follow any rules, they could at leas t respect others. But some choose to ignore about fifty empty seats to come and sit just behind one, and start shouting, if asked to move to another seat. More irascible than a wolf from whom Red Riding Hood managed to escape. Another guy was actually sitting across the aisle from one, shouting loudly in his mobile, whilst looking backwards towards other passengers, all the time. Talking faster than Olaf the Snowman in the film Frozen. Never seen this before.
Caring friends might become incommunicado, as they deal with their own stress, the main zeitgeist at this time, while neighbours we barely know might help out with grocery shopping. Trying to warn some relatives to stock up, results in rude messages from others, about worrying the first ones. The news about thousands of deaths doesn’t frighten them, but advice about preparing for a lockdown, scares them silly. Perhaps this relationship needs to be quarantined too. Indiscreet Social Media posts reveal widening gaps between spouses. The coin might fall on the wrong side of the bed, as wounds are laid bare, and the balm of distance can ’t be applied to spouses or partners. Has Beauty had to quarantine herself with the Beast, or has Prince Peacock turned into a Beast because of being obliged to stay put, and not being able to preen his feathers before a gaggle of admiring females outside? Some boyfriends may turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, as reports of domestic violence have increased in this period.
Virtual hangouts reveal all too painfully friends who tend to hog the limelight, and aren’t all that interested in what others have to say. Is it worth it to join common interest group s online? Some members say their piece and disappear, before hearing anyone else out, as their mundane tasks are more important even during the lockdown. It seems that social distancing applies even to virtual hangouts. Just make sure the germs of your ideas are set afloat in the world, yet, log out before you can catch any viruses of the mind from anyone else in the group.
On a side note, it makes one wonder if one should read Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie, considering how fast all sorts of rumours are spreading across the board. Should one really wear masks or not? Are gloves useless or not? If they can’t find temporary fruit farm workers or fruit pickers, can there be a shortage of fresh food-stuffs in Europe? Are any of these celebs really ill, or are these rumours to gain sympathy from the public? Are wild animals really daring to cross-city lines and venturing out in the concrete jungles of sleepy surburbia? Most importantly, when will this extrovert’s nightmare end?
Though no Prince Charmings are expected to end this state of hibernation with a kiss, will a magical vaccine end Sleeping Beauty’s quarantine? If such a vaccine can’t be found on this planet, can Jack climb the beanstalk to get it from the cloudy realm of Big Pharma, hidden in mists and vapours of high security, far above common man? A vaccine that will not have been tested over years let alone months or even weeks, and whose short-term and long-term side effects will be unknown, but will be gladly embraced by a grateful public.
In medieval times, during the plague, people often fled from densely populated cities to the countryside. Apparently, in Russia, people are being encouraged to escape to the vast expanse of frozen Siberia. Perhaps there, they’ll encounter the Seven Dwarves who’ll feed and shelter them at a distance of two metres, like Snow White. Hopefully, like Hansel and Gretel, they won’t accept any food-stuffs from suspicious strangers. However, if the Three Bears came and discovered them like Goldilocks in their home, the bears would have to flee their own abode, unless the latter could reassure them that she was virus-free at that time. This pandemic has upturned/upended many social rules and myths on their heads. For example, the Pied Piper of Hamelin wouldn’t know where to lead the children to, that he was supposed to charm away with his magic flute. Because apparently, nowhere would be safe for them, including the far regions of Transylvania.
Though many are fantasizing about the return to ‘normality,’ where life seems to revolve around finding satisfaction in consumerism, few can gauge how different the frightened new world will be, once we emerge from this State-imposed chrysalized stage. How many freelancers will still have clients’ work left?
Once the cattle (who’ve been herded in their own private corrals) are allowed to roam shopping malls freely again, they ’ll have to reassess their addictive buttons. Will they reign in impulsive buying of unnecessary items, in case there’s a second or even a third wave of the pandemic? Will we keep up with the Joneses with the same intensity? Will shiny material objects retain that same attraction? Wi ll nurses be valued more than footballers? Will bimbos lose at least some of their followers, (unless they shell out for charities)?
Will we even realize that our ‘normal’ was never really normal. The planet may have existed for millions of years, but the changes imposed on its ecology in the last two centuries, since the advent of industrialization is not ‘normal’ by any standards. Shouldn’t we all at least think about scaling back and living somewhat like Tolkien ’s Hobbits, using tools instead of machines? Will teachers be paid more than make-up artists, let alone models who entice millions to spend billions on outer apparels that they don’t need? Some are afraid their hair will grow as long as that of Rapunzel. Others are afraid their true (hair) colours will be revealed, though their transformation will hardly be as dramatic as the witch in Hansel and Gretel. But what of their skin colour? How important is that?
Will we ever learn the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need?’ Will we continue to respect others, if not by Social Distancing, then just by common courtesy, which when shown, is sometimes taken as a sign of weakness? Will we even remember to cover our noses whenever we sneeze out unwanted fears in future?
On a positive note, will the race riots taking place in the US in May and June 2020 provoke people into reassessing their unconscious racist mind-set. Though violence is deplorable, at least these demonstrations are highlighting rampant racism that has existed in many societies till now. Perhaps these buttons will be reset as well.
Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza has presented many papers related to Romanticism and Fantasy in international conferences. Her 100+ articles (on art, theatre, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Litro, and A Beautiful Space. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review (USA), had been published in Coldnoon Journal, Szirine, Apertura, Entropy, and ensemble (in French). Her poems have appeared in 50 + Journals, including Columbia Journal, and The New Verse News, London Grip, Gramma, Columbia Journal, Classical Poetry Society, spillwords, and The Peacock Journal. Say hello on Facebook or visit her website.
Originally published in Pandemic