Issue 20

It’s Complicated: How the Pandemic Changed My Relationship With the Outside World 

It’s the early days of March, and I can see the first buds of the fiery red Gulmohar tree outside my window begin to bloom. The receding winter leaves behind glorious sunny afternoons with rich blue skies. The third wave of COVID-19 too has rapidly begun to ebb, and there seems to be no better time to step outdoors. Throughout the pandemic, one spoke endlessly about an urgent need to step into the outside world. However, something about slipping out of my flip-flops and printed shorts into heavy sports shoes and pants makes me want to dive deeper under the covers. Stepping outside the door is no longer as simple as putting on acceptable clothing and heading out. It requires hefty preparation and assessment. The preparation of being masked for hours, engaging in conversations while maintaining distance, mapping out the number of people around you — going out as we once knew is no longer the same. Safe to say, my relationship status with the outdoors is, well, complicated. 

I remember after the first wave of the pandemic, various groups of friends and family began carefully venturing out to have small picnics. With reports that increased ventilation can lower the chances of contracting the virus, public parks transformed into the ultimate meet-up spot. Not only public parks but also national parks, hill stations, and destinations with vast open spaces become increasingly popular. However, one had to carefully plan their dates with the outside. Elaborately planned outings with detailed menus, color-coordinated outfits, and picnic blankets were chalked out weeks in advance, as every Sunday afternoon transformed into an opportunity to host extensively curated picnic brunches. 

What was missing from all these events though, was the spontaneity that once made them unique. The thrill of entering a crowded marketplace and discovering a delectable meal at new unexpected restaurants was replaced by arduous research on limited open-air eateries. Bumping into forgotten friends at gatherings was marked by questions of their vaccine status, awkward elbow bumps, and warm smiles hidden behind masks. Even with all these precautions, I could not help but be paranoid about those around me being potential virus carriers. I came to prefer being far from the crowd, alone in my corner, observing the masked faces around me. 

Recent investigations from Emory University have found that the pleasure center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, reacts more strongly to unexpected events rather than expected pleasures. Human beings love being surprised. However, it seems that the pandemic has changed our ability to be surprised as often as we may like to be, which perhaps hampers how rewarding our fully pre-decided outdoor experiences may be. 

There is something rewarding about being in naturalistic settings, a kind of peace and solace that no amount of Zoom conferencing with your friends and family (or therapist, in my case) can bring. Immersing yourself in nature and spending time in natural environments has been proven to yield uncountable physiological and psychological benefits such as improved cardiovascular function, enhanced energy, and reduced negative emotions. Even though the emerging conversations around mental health were a welcome addition to the discourse around the impact of Covid, for me it was my body that struggled more. After the first month of Youtube workouts and morning Surya Namaskars, I was craving stimulation from being outdoors. The unpleasant blow of stepping into muddy patches, trying to befriend a fidgety squirrel, or simply just watching the clouds change form – being in nature made me feel alive like nothing did. 

Right before the nationwide lockdowns were imposed, my friends and I had grand plans of going on a week-long tour of South India and discovering new tourist attractions. After endless months of moping and anxiously pondering about what travel in the future holds for us, it’s safe to say none of us could have anticipated a travel experience as we underwent. Visits to grand hotels with international crowds were out of the question, and sitting in an airplane with layers of protective equipment did not seem like an attractive option. Our grand touring plans were reduced to a road trip around Rajasthan and short stays in AirBnbs and homestays. 

This is similar to global trends of tourists flocking to Airbnbs and rented homes. Vacation homes which were a short drive from home were the go-to solution for people who were desperate for a break, but erring on the side of caution. Such short getaways with small, intimate groups align with the general idea of people wanting to invest their time in stronger relationships rather than risking their health by meeting distant acquaintances. 

While staying in AirBnbs allows us to have a break from long-drawn isolation, it lacks the interaction one had with other visitors. The joy of observing new people from various parts of the world, smiling at children running around at breakfast, waving at the person at the front desk when returning after a long day- these were all crucial elements to traditional ‘vacations.’ Images of hotels being turned into quarantine centers, and management staff in protective kits, however, were enough to disconcert me from engaging in any kind of socialization. 

As I write this article, one week before my university resumes fully offline operations, I cannot help but reflect on the complexity of this relationship. There is a sense of excitement, but a hint of apprehension weighing me down as well. Am I ready to share my outdoor spaces with scores of other students? Or is having completely uninhibited access to the outside world going to make me want to curl up indoors again? 

Jaidev Pant is a student of Psychology and Media Studies at Ashoka University. He is interested in popular culture and its intersections with politics, gender, and behavior. 

Picture Credits: Mark Cocksedge

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Issue 9

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge On Zoom?

What was described as a recession-proof industry by Forbes, hasn’t proved to be a pandemic proof industry. The Wedding industry, which was estimated to be worth 50 billion dollars in India, was badly hit by COVID-19 in the past year. According to an estimate by hospitality firm OYO weddingz, the volume of wedding events in 2020 was at 40-50 per cent compared to  the number in the previous year and  guest lists shrunk by 60 per cent due to COVID-19 restrictions. Several brides and grooms who dreamt of a “big fat wedding” had to make peace with the imposed restrictions, while others cancelled their weddings in the hope of things becoming better. India in particular saw the highest cancellation of wedding globally with 23% couples cancelling or postponing the celebration. However, some couples found innovative ways to cope up with the pandemic —Zoom weddings!

“When I decided to tie the knot with my partner, I imagined that at the very least, my family and friends would be able to attend.” Spardha, 29, who got married in the month of October 2020 said as she added “deciding to get married on a Zoom Call wasn’t an easy decision, however, if anything, COVID taught us to expect the unexpected and take charge.” Several couples like them made the decision to broadcast their wedding for the friends and families who couldn’t join. They also participated in several firsts — a wedding without event planners and baraat, no large gatherings or a fancy venue or what Dilli waale would call ‘show-shaa.’ As we mark a year since the lockdown was announced, it becomes pertinent to ask then, will COVID-19 leave a lasting impression on how we plan, attend and celebrate weddings in India? What stands to be the future of the wedding industry?

There is no way to predict the future and whether weddings as we know them will permanently change. However, consumer and behavioural research can offer some insight in this matter. Consumer behaviour is contingent upon several factors such as time, place, location and culture with exposure of a consumer playing a major role. With the onset of pandemic, it is disrupting patterns of how the consumers would traditionally buy or engage in experiences by offering new exposure to those migrating to virtual environments. Behaviour and habit changes have a direct correlation to the extent of exposure to new environments. Research proves that it takes anywhere between 18 to 254 days to form a new habit, while on average it takes about 66 days. As the study by Swiss Re Institute shows consumers are settling into new patterns of behaviour for considerable lengths of time as a response to multiple waves of pandemic. Therefore, it’s quite likely that people will continue relying on technology to facilitate their wedding as the momentum to shift to technology for organising weddings was building up even prior to the pandemic.

The wedding industry also rapidly adapted and transformed to meet the needs of the consumers who were and continue organising online weddings in the light of pandemic. For instance, matrimonial sites have been introducing new features to account for the lack of a physical meet-and-greet. now has a video profile feature while launched a special app for video calling purposes called, ShaadiMeet. The company is also organising virtual social get-togethers for its users for the first time. Both and Bharat Matrimony have also launched their initiatives, ‘Weddings from Home’ and ‘Home Weddings’ respectively to offer end-to-end services to customers to facilitate marriages over videos. What seemed far from truth has become possible as the wedding industry scrambles to adapt to the challenging circumstances. 

Of course, one can’t help but lament what will be lost if  weddings start happening online with an intimate gathering. The sound of loud dhol blasting in your ear, the tangy taste of gol gappas, awkward smiling as the photographer clicks your pictures while eating the messiest foods; the hugging, talking,  and  gossiping, gets missed by the guests attending online. Without these experiences, attending weddings online seems more of an obligation than an experience that one looks forward to. However, considering the social relevance that weddings hold in Indian society, it is unlikely that people will change their consumption pattern as quickly as their other items in the consumption basket. In fact, an ongoing consumer sentiment analysis study by McKinsey and Co. reveals that in China and India, spending is bouncing back beyond grocery and household supplies, and consumers in India might be more willing to spend on certain categories such as festivals and weddings. If it so happens, then once again, it will be reiterated that the big-fat Indian weddings aren’t so easy to do away with, and while pandemic might be a hiccup, it cannot efface the socio-cultural significance of weddings in India. 

Ridhima Manocha is a final year English and Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Evaluating the Implications of Privatization in India’s COVID-19 Inoculation Drive

Though India’s vaccination drive began in mid-January, the distribution of vaccines among target populations has effectively been slower than anticipated. Contemplating the introduction of the private sector in vaccination distributions turned into concrete action in late February, with a formal announcement that private hospitals would be allowed to administer the vaccines at the price of Rs. 250. The introduction of private players in the mammoth task of inoculating the Indian population has gathered advocates as well as critics. How will privatizing vaccine distribution affect the healthcare sector – and what precedent does this move set for the future of medical programs in the country?

Privatization of vaccine distribution provides several solutions to the government’s woes at the surface. The production and distribution of vaccines can scale up monumentally faster in the presence of privatising channels. This move also brings about immense benefits by its way of immediately reducing the sole burden of vaccine distribution on governmental bodies as well as the healthcare sector. This can compensate for shortages faced in public healthcare and provide a relatively lower overall cost of vaccination to citizens since the vaccine is now being mass produced. 

However, it is important to evaluate how privatization can adversely affect the long term growth and function of the public healthcare sector in India. Firstly, opening up private channels for vaccine distribution creates an opportunity for frivolous vaccine candidates to gain entry into the market, partake in false advertisement and compromise public trust in vaccine science. This can lead to the persistence of the burden of risk and pressure in the healthcare sector, completely negating the positive effects of vaccination drives. Secondly, it is crucial to note that with the private sector involved, the market is essentially what is determining the production and distribution of vaccines. For instance, Adar Poonawala had stated last year that the Serum Institute of India will be shifting resources from the production of other vaccines to free up capacity for the production of a COVID-19 vaccine. This can lead to a coexistence of shortages of high demand essential vaccines and a glut of low demand new vaccines in circulation. In essence, by large scale privatisation of vaccine distribution, the government will be surrendering a crucial public health responsibility to a capitalist market where companies are competing for larger market shares and higher profits possibly at the expense of public health priorities. 

Though the government has pushed for ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance to enable Indian firms to become major global players, there should also be a more careful consideration of self reliance in the public sector. India must begin addressing the shortages that plague the country’s public healthcare system and revitalise the capabilities of the public sector in vaccine production and vaccine technology. 80% of the Indian government’s vaccination needs are met by private firms in India and abroad. This has increased the prices by up to 250% as compared to the public sector, pushing India’s vaccination budget up 7 times in just 5 years. Moreover, the government also must be cognizant of the notion that the privatization of vaccines propagates.

While larger accessibility and reach has been cited as a popular reason to support private vaccine distribution, ideally public health systems should be meeting these standards themselves. Though the vaccine is being offered at a relatively low price, it must be questioned as to why it is not being administered by the government at a nominal rate that suits the interests of all sections of society. These questions call for a critique of public health systems in India, and demand an evaluation pertaining to how they can be improved. 

Moreover, the push for privatizing vaccine distribution must be carefully analyzed in terms of how it fits into the larger picture of vaccine development and distribution. Given that the coronavirus has mutated repeatedly already,  R&D units and vaccine production and distribution agencies are critically attached to one another. R&D facilities must continuously identify new strains and develop updated vaccines for them, and vaccine production and distribution must follow through. In a situation where private players are allowed to develop vaccines, as well as produce and distribute them, several questionable effects can emerge. 

Firstly, private sector activities are also often dictated by the aims of conserving patents and intellectual property rights along with profit making. This could affect how private firms choose to invest in R&D, as well as cherry picking between vaccine candidates. Secondly, in a situation where there is a possibility that established vaccines may become ineffective due to mutating strains, the incentives for private distributions cannot be predicted. The cause of private interest in vaccine production and distribution is profit-driven. How these firms react in response to mutating strains will depend on the value of the product in question – the vaccine. While the government can pay these firms for their services in case of any losses, it will represent a government expenditure that could have been avoided.

Moreover, since the vaccine would become a product under a private distribution set-up, it is also important to consider how private companies will react to any misinformation about viable vaccine candidates – and whether such events would affect their distribution among the masses. Instances of widespread misinformation pertaining to vaccine candidates’ safety in the face of reliable scientific evidence could provide private firms with enough reason to reduce or cease their distribution in the face of public mistrust. Navigating such situations will be complicated – with public health interests bearing the brunt of it all. Such gaps will be less likely to emerge in a system where the government will be involved at each step. 

While privatisation of vaccine production and distribution might help curb the spread of the virus, increase reach of vaccination drives and lessen the heavy burden on the healthcare system in the short run, it is crucial in the long run to empower the public sector for it to become cost effective and dependable. The bid for privatizing vaccinations needs to be approached with care – by the government, as well as the private companies involved in the same, for any misstep could have grave consequences for the future of medical treatments and private interventions in India.

Anjana Ramesh is an Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

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Issue 9

Ancient Pandemic, Modern Eyes

In May of 430 BCE, an epidemic broke out in Athens, entering through the port of the city, the Piraeus. Although the pathogen is still a matter of debate, the effect was clearly devastating. By the time it subsided five years later, up to a quarter of the population had died (75,000 to 100,000 people). A mass grave discovered in the cemetery of the city, the Kerameikos, may be associated with this epidemic. Thucydides, who lived through the epidemic, wrote that “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered” (2.47). Physicians, he said, were most susceptible, because of their care for the sick.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to read Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague without seeing parallels in our own time. Attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19 by restricting air and sea travel echo Thucydides’ claim that the pathogen entered Athens through her port, while his acknowledgement that medical professionals were hardest hit, especially early in the crisis, is reminiscent of the great cost born by doctors, nurses, and carers now. Those who have wavered between awe at the speed of scientific research and the development of treatments for COVID-19 and despair at how much remains to be understood might also empathize with the way in which Thucydides moves from scientific scrutiny of the symptoms of the Athenian plague and helplessness, as he recalls, “Some died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention. No remedy was found that could be used as a specific; for what did good in one case, did harm in another” (2.51). 

Terracotta oil flask with painting of Philoctetes on Lemnos, ca.420 BCE. MMA 56.171.58. Source.

The Athenians were not unaware of the causes of the disease. They observed that infection traveled from person to person, and, it seems, they practiced a form of social distancing. In the same passage, Thucydides writes of the fear of visiting neighbors, the choices people were forced to make between care for others and their own safety. The impossibility of separating mental and physical health also pervades his description, as despair leads the Athenians to become even sicker.

It is the physical symptoms of the disease which have attracted the most attention by scholars, but the socio-psychological effects which I find myself most drawn to in this account. Thucydides writes not only of despair, but also of shifting social mores, as people begin to question their beliefs about the workings of the world (2.53). He is critical of such changes, casting them as the disordered and temporary effects of a world turned upside down. But I have to wonder if the questioning and re-evaluation of priorities, which I and many others have experienced over the past year, will be so fleeting.

In the years following the plague, the healing cult of Asclepius took on a new prominence in Athens. In 419/8 BCE, a decade after the outbreak, a sanctuary of Asclepius was built on the South slope of the Athenian acropolis. Interestingly, the location chosen for the sanctuary was adjacent to the Theater of Dionysus, quite possibly because of the curative powers associated with music, drama, and dance. At sanctuaries of Asclepius outside of Athens, theaters became a regular feature, and the curative properties of performance became increasingly integrated into the healing cult. Epidauros, for example, is the site both of a sanctuary of Asclepius and of the most acoustically perfect theater in the Greek world (seating over 10,000 spectators). Centuries later, in the Roman era, a small theater was built into the extra-urban sanctuary of Asclepius at Pergamum, providing a space for visitors to the sanctuary to benefit from concerts and other performances, while a larger theater in the city center served the needs of the population during her civic festivals.

Theater at Epidaurus, 4th c. BCE. Photograph by Carole Raddato. Source.

Last semester, I taught a course titled “Classical Performance,” in which we discussed the use of music, drama, and dance for healing purposes in such sanctuaries. The impetus for this conversation was Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, the story of a wounded Greek hero abandoned on the island of Lemnos, apart from community and medical treatment. On the island, Philoctetes’ wound festers, smells, and oozes, as he makes a home for himself in the wild. Philoctetes is not just a play about disease, but profound solitude. It is also, I think, a critique of what a community which refuses to care for its most vulnerable really means (whether we are to see Athens as that community is another question). 

I also find it remarkable just how long after the plague of 430 Sophocles wrote Philoctetes, which debuted at the Dionysia two decades afterwards, in 409 BCE. This makes me wonder if we have not yet seen the full creative response to COVID-19, and if perhaps that will develop over many years to come. Will we too put our faith in the healing power of the arts, as we (I hope) recover from the psychological and physical effects of this time of crisis? What, I wonder, will the artistic responses to COVID-19 be in twenty years’ time?

Mali Annika Skotheim is Assistant Professor of English at Ashoka University where she teaches Global Antiquities and Ancient Philosophies.

Picture Credits: Eye Ubiquitous—Getty Images

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).