Coronavirus is making us question everything we have been doing till now. Society is changing in curious ways
The American 24-hour news media’s penchant to hang on to a piece of news like a dog with a bone has been transferred to individuals in the era of social media. Everywhere you turn, and every click you make has a different angle to the same thing. Now, that is okay if it is war somewhere else, or a misbehaving politician. But when it is the coronavirus, it is not there. It is here.
When the virus and its problems seemed largely a Chinese problem, I got into the habit of regularly watching the China Global Television Network channel. Since they follow the communist party line, even while reporting the spread of the virus to different cities and people being quarantined, the anchors could deliver the news with a smile and as though it was something normal. And all the stories that accompanied the news reports gave you a feeling of comfort.
Here was the story of the mother who found such creative ways to entertain her little children within the apartment because they could not go out to play. And here was this security guard who was eating his meals in the hallway because he did not want to go into his apartment and potentially infect his family. All normal, and bringing out the best in the people. Isn’t it wonderful when people are so loyal and nationalistic that they only think the best of their rulers?
And then the virus, instead of staying within China, got a global visa and began travelling around. When it came to America, we were first told to wash hands and not touch the face. The first part was okay but it took a long time to get used to the latter. Lesson one: Do you realise how often you touch your face without realising it?
American are used to stocking up supplies in anticipation of weather events. Before hurricane season in the south, before a nor’easter snow storm in the north east, and so on. So stocking in response to all the unsolicited advice in the social media was easy to do. Hand sanitizers vanished from the shelves. Stores put up signs that they do not stock face masks.
Then the news came around that mouthwash will serve the purpose since it has the same alcohol content. Mouthwashes vanished from the shelves. Then rubbing alcohol. Then toilet paper. Why toilet paper? Then pet food. Pet food?! Americans have begun to imagine they are all going to be stuck in their residences for two weeks and need to stock up on everything. Finally, even the unknown brands are flying off the shelves!
When ‘social distancing’ is the acceptable form of socialising and a ‘namaste’ is preferable to a handshake or a hug, society is changing in curious ways. Roads became more drivable as cars stayed home. Parties and wedding got cancelled and people saved money. Some of that could go into the stock market which was crashing and presenting new opportunities for buyers!
International flights arriving into the US were given special attention as the US and many other countries started closing their borders. Whether the public health officials support the move or not as a way to contain the virus, it gives the government in charge a feeling of having done something and the journalists another story to write about. That, in itself, should count for something.
My state decided to shut down restaurants for on-premise consumption and only allow those to function that have a delivery system in place. I hope the restaurant workers, who are near the bottom of the economic ladder will continue to receive wages. But their wages are designed so their tips help them reach subsistence level. Coronavirus runs against capitalism where it is glorious to be rich and miserable to be poor.
My university has moved to fully online delivery of instruction. Instructors and students not familiar with online pedagogy will have to relearn how they learn and teach. Who would think a virus will help us question everything we have been doing till now?
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston