Sarmishtha, a mother of two is a homemaker in the Cachar area of Assam. She says that though none in her family were infected during the second Covid wave in mid-2021, life has become tough since then.
“I am not at all able to cope with the workload, because life has changed” she laments.
“The children, who are studying in a Convent School, had been mostly doing online classes, so they have gotten into the habit of reading everything on the net. They are stuck with their mobile phones 24×7. They are confined to the home because their friends don’t come out. I wonder if they are really studying, so from time to time I have to monitor at least what content my younger daughter is seeing. I am trying to divert her attention by making her learn the keyboard and western vocal music. Children don’t touch the course books I have purchased for the new session. My elder daughter has lost practice of writing and her attention span has decreased, so she could not finish her exam paper in time. Moreover, she had got used to multiple choice questions, but the school has reverted to long-answer questions” says Sarmishtha.
“Also, she is depressed as she could have scored much better in class 10 CBSE exams but for the confusion about the syllabus and the new system of marking. Now all schools are set for transit into the NEP so every week there is some activity in the name of ‘personality development. Trees are being adopted, yoga day was observed, dance and elocution competitions are organised, but in a stereotyped way. Yet no one is accountable for controlling bullying, which has increased very much a post-Covid phenomenon. Problems have not ended here. Staying at home for 2 years has affected my elder one’s health. Neither is she able to run nor walk fast anymore, as she becomes breathless very soon. Recently, she started taking coaching classes so there are 10 children stuffed in a minivan and 50 students in the small-sized coaching classroom, which makes it very suffocating. Also, nobody wants to wear a mask as the teachers don’t insist.“
Sharmila is another homemaker living in Nagpur. Her only son is 7 years old. She says “Covid times were difficult for us because my son was listening to all the discussions we were having at home and even the arguments between us. I would chase him out every time he came to give his ‘expert opinion’. But I feel Covid has made him age by at least 10 years. He has begun to talk like a grown-up boy. Even now children, who used to play in the park, are staying at home hooked to the TV or the smartphone. I think in these 2 years, they lost their childhood. Their brains have become cluttered with too much information.”
“Schools have also gone digital. Only yesterday my son’s school asked us to download a learning app for our children. 50 or more parents have signed a memorandum opposing this move because they don’t want the younger kids to use mobile phones so early in their lives, as it is very addictive and leads to anxiety and depression. But schools find this an easy option. Children are being asked to make videos and are being sent videos online for learning purposes. This is the so-called ‘smart learning’ we are adopting, but children are becoming too dependent on digital tools. It may be easy for us, but what about those toiling people who don’t have Android phones? And, our kids don’t interact with friends and family anymore, they don’t like family outings and are becoming introverted. But, most probably, this kind of learning system will become the norm once the New Education Policy gets implemented next year,” she opined.
Manavi Das’ husband is a professor at National Institute of Science Education and Research in Bhubaneshwar who also has to attend to a lot of pending administrative work at her Department after it reopened. After the pandemic, life changed for Manavi. “I have lost weight and feel fatigued because everybody has become used to the comforts that they enjoyed during the pandemic. My mother-in-law had a minor attack of the Omicron variant of Covid. But she is too scared thinking of what might happen as she has comorbidities; she wants me to be at home all the time and even bring food to her bedside. “Bahu hai na, sab kar legi” (‘Daughter-in-law is there, she will do everything”) is her favourite phrase now. She has given leave to the maid fearing further infection. And yes, I have made the mistake of proving (during the pandemic) that I can do multitasking. So my rest time is gone! In the evenings I used to have some time to talk with my husband. But now life has changed and much work is being done online as my husband’s students find it easier to consult him and discuss anytime. The home has become an annex of the department. So, I keep making several cups of tea and coffee almost every day while he is discussing work with colleagues and students.”
The working woman’s lurking fears
Anamika Singh, who teaches in a college in Meerut was giving vent to her anger at the callousness of the administration. They put us on invigilation duty, but neither the students nor the teachers were being checked for infection. Some students and even one teacher were coughing severely. There should be some system for them to appear for the examinations online if they are sick. Why remove this option when Covid is still on? I contracted the infection and passed it on to my husband. Both of us were very ill with nobody to take care of us because our children are elsewhere. Of course, I had to suffer more because my husband knows very little about cooking and my maid was asked not to come! Antibiotics have become like logenzes, and the throat doesn’t become normal for weeks after the fever is gone. I was having severe throat pain, headaches, difficulty in breathing, loose motions and loss of appetite. I have become extremely weak but have to prepare food, clean the house and the vessels every day plus manage online consultation with our doctor as well as organise the purchase of medicines.”
Ruchi Malhotra who teaches Psychology in a degree college affiliated with Allahabad University has a different story to tell. She is quite happy to see students attending classes with much greater enthusiasm than before the pandemic. “I love teaching and want my workplace to be far away from home, as my mind works better there. So I am enjoying every minute of my time in college. Nowadays attendance is always full. There are hardly any absentees. Students enjoy themselves thoroughly but are more attentive in class……you can see them chatting about studies during breaks, taking part in activities, eating in the canteen and even playing outdoor games. On the whole, I think they are more focused because they have come to understand after the pandemic that jobs are precarious, so it’s always better to learn new skills while there is time. But we teachers are under some pressure because we lost precious time during the pandemic. The pandemic became an experiment for the commercialisation of education, so now we are expected to create online content, because providing additional resources to students and developing innovative teaching-learning methodologies count for promotions. They add up to one’s score in the evaluation, so we have to do it. But it is like cutting the tree you are sitting on because, in the end, the teacher will become redundant. Yet, I feel that online teaching can never be an alternative to classroom teaching, with teachers and classmates to help in the learning process. Anyway, after my son goes to sleep, I sit staring into the computer, because it is only after 11 pm that I can think with a free mind.”
Ruchi says that as a psychologist she notices a greater degree of anxiety among homemakers to take up a job, post-Covid. Also, women have tried to equip themselves with technological skills during the lockdown. They have also become more health conscious in the sense of exercising more, taking long walks and going closer to nature. Most of them now know the impact of climate change too. They have also adapted themselves to a digital world and are more resilient now,” opines Ruchi.
Pushpa is a domestic help who lives in the outhouse of one of the Professors at Allahabad University. Her husband lost his job as a packer with an Ayurvedic medicine wholesale dealer who passed away during the Covid-19 second wave. She manages the house as she earns Rs. 8000 at the professor’s house and Rs. 5000 for stitching women’s clothes.
“My elder son could not pass 10th class as he could not study online. We don’t have an Android phone and coaching classes had been stopped during the mahamari (pandemic). My younger son doesn’t study. Only my daughter is going to a nearby nursery where I pay Rs.300 per month. Life will be hard till my husband starts earning.”
How much more can women take?
Women who lost their partners have not recovered from the trauma they underwent during the second wave of Covid. One of these is a tragic case in Allahabad, where a doctor couple tested positive during the second wave.
Dr JK Mishra, a renowned doctor who had retired from the SRN Medical College and his wife Dr Rama Mishra, senior gynaecologist (retired) from the same hospital got themselves admitted to the SRN Medical College Hospital thinking it was a second home for them and they would get the best care. But they were in for a rude shock. Even the doctors who had been their students left everything to the junior doctors and only kept giving vague telephonic assurances from their homes.
Dr Rama Mishra was made to sleep on the floor and was never given a correct picture of what her husband was going through. Finally, he passed away leaving Dr Rama Mishra protesting and grieving. She filed a case of dereliction of duty against the doctor in charge as according to her, her husband had no comorbidities but had to keep begging for medicines and oxygen. But on the very day of the first anniversary of his death, days before the final hearing, she fell after having a brain stroke and passed away. Says her only son, “my mother was in deep shock and couldn’t come out of it. She could not reconcile with the fact that their students had left them to die. She was the lone witness in the case.”
These stories make us wonder-have we learnt any lessons. And, if there is another wave, will we be in any better position to face it?
Kumudini Pati is a researcher based in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh