It was the last week of January when I had landed in Paris after a riveting experience at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was brutally cold and the air was enveloped in crisp yet dry air. It almost seemed like the etymology of Winter is Paris, at that time originated from somewhere in the North Pole, as I was waiting to hail a cab back to my hotel on the 16th arrondissement. Just as I sat in a dilapidated black cab, I felt a little itchy in my throat and simply cleared it just when the cab driver precipitously stopped on the side of the road and frantically asked in his French accent, “Mademoiselle, which country are you coming from?” Bewildered by his unassuming question, I said “Switzerland” to which he instantly replied, “No madame, which is your home country?” I almost took it as a racial slur and answered “India” with a bit of a hesitation. “Not China, right?” I looked at him straight in the eye with a poker face and immediately replied, “No”. I clearly couldn’t decipher why he was so bothered about where I was coming from until I reached my hotel and he said, “Excuse Moi! There is a new virus from China called Corona Virus and there are a few cases in Paris already. Please be careful. Merci Beaucoup.”
Without paying much heed to it I carried on with life in general until I landed in Delhi and there were slight murmurs about how the virus was taking over the world and causing havoc like never before. It was not until the third week of March when the severity of the virus actually hit us, which is also when India was given a short notice of 24 hours before the entire country of 1.2 billion people went into lockdown. I recall, my father whose family had valiantly gone through the 1947 India-Pakistan partition telling me that even though millions of families were uprooted back then, he had never seen anything like what was transpiring with the virus, sheathing the entire world down to its knees. It was a complete pandemonium.
By now, we were all in quarantine and as time elapsed, we all stayed in, voraciously read books, caught up on our extra curricular activities and cultivated our passion into hobbies which further graduated into becoming a profession, for some. Being an artist as well, I created a “Pandemic Art Series”, which I shall be showcasing in New York just like in 2019, once the world opens up. It almost felt like as if time stood still and the world had become a global mess, in no time. I still recall checking in with my friends in America, especially those living in New York where the number of cases were ludicrously through the roof and people were dying faster than the lightening speed of Usain Bolt. Mass graves were dug, field hospitals were erected in places like Central Park and the Javits Center while families and friends were mourning without having bidding adieu to their loved ones. Devastatingly, more than a thousand people were dying in a single day. Having lived in New York several times in my twenties, the whole situation really felt surreal and unquestionably close to my heart.
Socially isolating oneself, constantly wearing a mask, sanitizing, juxtaposed with emotional and mental stress seemed like the new normal. Major life-changing decisions like getting married or divorced, moving in with a partner, joining or quitting a job, graduating high school or college- it all came to a halt. Additionally, losing a familiar routine not only provoked a sense of immense grief but also made one ponder about a plethora of unanswered questions. We are all social beings and actually losing an in-person connection with your friends and family seemed abnormally grotesque. Anxiety, stress and exhaustion further exacerbated existing mental health conditions while triggering new ones. After all, we all were emphatically made to oscillate in shielding our mental and physical well-being, something that wasn’t an insouciant task in mind.
People were working from home while wives, mothers, partners etc. were juggling multiple roles, all from their make-shift nook and corners of their homes. It seemed like the world had fallen apart, for we were abysmally just not used to this kind of lifestyle, especially in the age of constant scramble and instant gratification. Life had unanticipatedly paused. Kids were being zoom schooled, corporates were functioning at odd hours. I still recall the time when I was mentally exhausted with work zoom calls for my E-Commerce Rug Venture and I would wake up with sore eyes as a result of excessive screen time. Also, it literally seemed like eons from the time when I last met anyone else apart from my immediate family. The social anxiety was real and was further surmounted by chronic uncertainty. Without our normal routine to rely on, we were drinking more, shopping online like there’s no tomorrow which in turn elevated Amazon’s revenue, exponentially while shooting up FEDEX stocks like never before. There were two completely different worlds where a percentage of people were making money and rolling in wealth as a result of the pandemic while on the other hand, livelihoods were being lost at an alarming rate and most people could barely afford two meals a day. The social discrepancy was widening like a size zero model’s thigh gap. The virus has aptly been called the “Inequality Virus” by the Oxfam Global Report, where rigged economies were funneling wealth to those who were riding the pandemic in luxury while frontline and essential workers were struggling to even pay bills.
Humans are not planet earth’s best tenants which is sheerly evident from living in one of the most polluted countries in the world. Being in Delhi, I don’t recall seeing a luminously blue sky in the longest time, until the kind I witnessed during the lockdown. Cars were getting rustic as a result of being stationed at one spot, air travel was paused which further embroiled more than a gazillion aviation and hospitality companies to incur a loss of trillions of dollars. The beauty and salon industry, something that has been an essential constituent in my life was spiraling down like an abandoned baby. People didn’t really care about glamorizing themselves with the latest outfits or make-up since there was nowhere really to go, while athleisure and lounge wear were becoming the new norm and had already gained significant prominence in our wardrobes. Hill House launched a dress called the “Nap dress” that became a quarantine sensation. This Pandemic uniform went on to make $1m in 12 minutes, something that the company now intends to further grow and monetize, post-pandemic. While on my end, I couldn’t really be bothered and I literally had five pairs of comfort clothing on the top of my shelf that I would rotate in no particular order.
If there is something called a pandemic exhaustion, that’s precisely what everybody was going through. They were close to hitting a wall. I still recall inquiring about one of my friends- Laura who at that time was living in the epicenter of ground zero in Italy and was witnessing something like she had never seen before, in her 35 years of existence. Professionally, she was an Italian chef from whom I once had the pleasure of taking Italian cooking lessons, in Tuscany in 2018. Trice, one of my old time acquaintances from Los Angeles was living in Luca at that time and while she was safe, I still recall reading her emails about how there were hundreds and thousands of bereaved families who were simply inconsolable. It literally felt like the world was living on borrowed time. Emblematic of the severity of the disease, there were people on life support ventilators while their families prayed to the almighty with “hope” being their only light at the end of the virus tunnel. The streets were eerily silent and all one could hear were ambulance sirens. Human interaction took place behind plexiglass, since hugs, kisses and handshakes were forbidden.
The caustic effects of pandemic isolation have been directly proportional to one’s coping mechanisms. While married people lived with their significant other- unless separated or divorced and kids lived with their parents, there were a set of people who created their own bubble and lived amongst themselves. One of the most reclusive, lonely and isolated set of people were those who lived all by themselves or were separated from their loved ones by virtue of restricted air travel. A man is a social being and a lack of human connection literally devoids him of basic necessities of life. We saw dating apps were on an upward horizon and while it didn’t necessarily work for some people, there was a percentage of those who found love in the times of corona which further culminated into holy matrimony. They video chatted, facetimed and got ready for virtual happy hours just to keep themselves going and it seemed to work since Zoom weddings had become the latest fad.
“Even before the pandemic, the world was changing drastically – it was replete with unilateralism, populism and inequality, which are arguably attributable to economic globalisation, neoliberalism and even the refugee crisis”, says Chao Wang who is an attorney with the Chinese Journal of International Law. One thing is undoubtedly certain, that the pandemic has and will further reduce the world’s reliance on other countries for global supply chain, primarily for essential commodities. This was pretty evident from the time when countries rushed into a rat’s race of creating a vaccine in a record time and followed the mantra, “Us first, them later”.
Travel has inherently been part of my second nature, throughout life. For someone who is always on the move by virtue of profession and leisure, being cooped up in a city for almost 10 months was incomprehensible. It was just after the vaccine was approved and right before Christmas when I finally decided to take the plunge and booked my direct 15 hour flight to California to visit friends and family. The very notion of sitting with a mask on for hours was petrifying. I literally told myself that I was not going to use the loo or eat any food which obviously seemed impossible. Having lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco on several occasions, being in California amidst the pandemic just wasn’t the same. It was gloomy and there was an uncanny lull in the air, something that I had never experienced before in this Golden state. Over the years, my usual runs to America have been inundated with my Rug expositions, art exhibition, shooting a short film or speaking at a conference that entails flying from city to city. All this wasn’t there and due to social distancing, meeting other friends and acquaintances etc. was not an option. While my trip included more outdoor activities like hiking in Topanga, horse-back riding in Half moon bay and biking across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco to Sausalito, nevertheless, it was a different experience. It was for the very first time, when I actually didn’t extend my travel and was yearning to fly back home.
Well, it’s been a little more than a year into the Pandemic where the elderly and essential workers are currently being inoculated and the world is already witnessing a third wave. It is still not over yet. It might never be, atleast in the minds of people who have been a testimony to something like never before and moreover, the year 2020 has been indelibly etched in one’s mind. They say, a pandemic happens once in a hundred years, but we sincerely hope that something like this never occurs again. Lastly, one thing is certain, there will be no return to normality. We are and will further be compelled to redesign our lives, re-align our thoughts and visions about life, rethink our obsession with growth and find ways to protect and chaperone the most vulnerable.