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Living With the Virus: Thinking Sociologically

Originated in the Wuhang district of China, SARS-CoV-2 that sporadically transmitted across the world has opened up a can worm of questions on the issues of the flight and rise of transmission ushered in by the bourgeois, upper-class, privileged echelons of the social order and, the ramifications it impinged on the working-class population, pushing them to the ordeal of choosing between life and livelihood. The paradox of valourising the frontline healthcare force and attack against on-duty doctors and nurses, and forceful eviction of healthcare professionals providing service during pandemic or the surge of domestic abuse cases as found by National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/relationships/love-sex/domestic-violence-cases-in-india-on-the-rise-during-lockdown-says-report/articleshow/75801752.cms) in their study of rise of domestic violence cases in different states in India is conspicuously evident. The latter once again busting the myth of ‘home’ being a safe haven for women.

Dr. Liji Thomas (https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200527/How-Indias-lockdown-has-affected-mental-health.aspx) writes that the impact of lockdown can have severe turn leading to post-traumatic stress and aggression. It is now being said that the second wave of Covid-19 have emerged in China (https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-06-19/A-second-wave-of-COVID-19-in-China–RrSVGLFLeU/index.html) and India is also prone to a second wave of Covid-19 as envisaged by AIIMS director, Randeep Guleria (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-vulnerable-to-second-wave-of-coronavirus-aiims-director/articleshow/76616333.cms) despite the state authority continuously asserting that there is community transmission in India!

As an ethnographer working on the themes of ageing, palliative care and intergenerational exchange that demands on-site observations, extensive and intensive fieldwork, and face-to-face interactions with the participants, the watershed moment of SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is turning out to be the most challenging task on multiple levels. It is emotionally exhausting with the information boom of death and morbidity that has impinged upon the human civilisation. The present information on presymptomatic carriers (the ones who may not show the symptoms of Covid-19 at the initial stage but may later demonstrate) and the asymptomatic (the ones who are the carriers of Covid-19) but never show the symptoms at any stage is generating fear, skepticism and, covert and overt exhibition of helplessness among the people.

While newer terms are being introduced everyday, the pace at which clarification, cross-verified information, and accountable leadership is dwindling away in the garb of crisis and confusion is alarming. The fear mongering, sensationalist journalism, has turned to be a legitimate coping mechanism for the media houses to survive the competition of reporting with the most unsettling, morbid headlines, and the accompanying visual images of dead bodies and the refusal to bury those dead bodies, the harrowing plight of migrant labourers and incidents of eruptions of violence both within the domains of private, and public. Consumption of such information in the name of awareness is also becoming leisure for the viewers who in the labyrinth of lockdown, isolation and quarantine are increasingly veering towards the digital space and feels the perpetual need, almost like a self-programmed compulsion to keep updated and therefore, upgraded with the gush of information wave.

The ability to consume the tales of human sufferings, morbidity and anti-lockdown protests indicates the potency of the visual medium through its circulation and dissemination of information, paving for collective leisure of pandemic information consumption, making the viewers feel that they are distant through the screen yet close in stumbling upon the tragedies of suffering and death. Medical Anthropologist Arthur Kleinman notes that the torments of human suffering that wreaks havoc on the consciousness, also inspires art forms, in the present scenario the production of documentaries, short films and music videos are testimonies to Kleinman’s argument. It would not be preposterous to state that screenplays and scripts revolving around this pandemic is already underway. Such human sufferings will be immortalised through cinema, art and performing arts, and would be consumed by its patrons, the intelligentsia, the culture industry and the affluent society.

People being forced to the confines of their houses, the skeletons of dilapidated and dysfunctional family ties tumbling out of the cupboard, exasperated masses taking to the streets defying the lockdown instructions, sporadic clashes between the people and the police, people working at the frontline providing essential services being hailed as ‘covid warriors’ being celebrated somewhere and being attacked and abused elsewhere, the influx of people towards ‘home’, and suddenly the private sphere becoming the centre of activity. There is a shift with the home becoming the focal point-work-from-home, webinars and online education has become the norm, with the dependency on online delivery services, virtual entertainment and the digital medium becoming the only possible way of staying in touch with the ones at ‘distance’, and the dependence on technology has become more salient.

In the climate of social distancing, the physical nature of the romantic relationships have shifted to the virtual world where phone calls, video chats and sexting remain few of the limited options of expressing amorous desires and fostering intimacy. A study has shown that the traffic in Pornhub (https://theconversation.com/porn-use-is-up-thanks-to-the-pandemic-134972), world’s largest porn site has rose to 18 per cent after it was made free for 30 days during the pandemic period. Psychologists are of the opinion that porn watching becomes a coping mechanism to respond to stress, anxiety and loneliness. In other words, it becomes an escapade to sublimate negative emotions.

Psychologist, Laurie Gottlieb (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/18/surprising-intimacy-online-therapy-sessions-during-pandemic/?arc404=true) writes that although she is averse to the notion of online therapy sessions, however pandemic made her conduct such sessions where people were communicating from the bathrooms, laundry rooms and closets, thereby allowing the patients to narrate their trials and tribulations, from their familiar spaces, creating more intimacy between the therapist and the patient. Psychiatrists and doctors are resorting to the online mode to diagnose and treat their patients. Considering the dependency on technology is higher than before, thereby resolving the paraphernalia of time and space, the digital divide or what may be stated as digital capitalism is also louder than before. This is evident in the resistance against online classes in schools and colleges as a large section of the students are still digitally deprived to avail such facilities. As envisaged by historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/yuval-hararis-warning-davos-speech-future-predications/), the digital inequality will soon give into the crescendo of digital dictatorship with colossal amount of data available that can be precariously used for hacking humans. The incidents of zoom app being used by hackers to steal information of the users and breach their security is reminiscent of this stern plausibility argued by Harari.

Another issue that has emerged in the light of Covid-19 outbreak is the rise of mental health problems and also physical ailments in the absence of curfew on outdoor activities. For the elderly population or the silver generation who are at greater risk of transmitting the virus owing to their low immunity rate especially the diabetic patients who are affected due to deficient flow of oxygen into the blood vessels.

Working on the themes of chronic illness, death, dying and decaying bodies in the time of pandemic

It arouses a cauldron of emotions as you cannot remain detached to the ecological setting as well as the people who form the core of your study, they are not mere nameless, faceless ‘social actors’ who can be simply subsumed under a ‘category’ neither they are not just ‘numbers’ like in hospitals and healthcare centres…they begin as strangers who slowly seeps into the conscience of the researcher, interweaved into the world, the universe of the researcher, the part of the researcher’s journey, growth and epiphanies as a researcher starts becoming familiar  with their life stories, illness histories and the sense of loss of ownership of their bodies. These combined with the morbid and pessimistic time we are living in, struggling, coming to terms and preparing for the ‘new normal’ does affect you! Although some researchers are opting for digital ethnography and other means of digital communication for data collection, it is not possible in all kinds of research.

This exposes the digital divide persistent in the sphere of research as the ones whose research has the scope of using such digital means will be at a favourable position of being ahead than the peers who have to wait for indefinite period to be allowed ‘entry’ into their respective the field settings. The historic epoch of lockdown has positioned the human civilization at such critical fault lines that there is a need to rethink the coping mechanism, survival strategies and gradually accept, with much deliberation, the ‘new normal’, the collective epiphany of living with the virus.

Sayendri Panchadhyayi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata, West Bengal. Her areas of interests are social gerontology, health and illness narratives, intergenerational exchange, life course approach, body and intimacy. She takes keen interest in curating heirloom recipes and food photography, fashion history and sartorial aesthetics, world folk music, and runs a page on Instagram titled ‘in_pursuit_of meanings’ where she documents her observations and anecdotes of her ethnographic trails and academic visits. She can be reached at sayendri@gmail.com.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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  1. Mam your presentation is really very good..I gained knowledge about many news and articles that you have shown in your presentation.

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