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Issue 6

Back to the Future: “Seamlessly” transitioning to a ‘Post-Covid World’

“It’s just a small gathering.”

News outlets globally reported a significant spike in Covid-19 cases in November 2020, owing to a festive season coinciding with lower temperatures and greater pollution levels. Following Diwali celebrations, daily Covid cases rose by nearly 50% in India, while the United States witnessed higher daily mortality post Thanksgiving, than in the beginning of the pandemic. Even as people rush to justify those one-two-three outings with a single sentence, we all wonder how long we will be forced to live like this. After months of speculation and great uncertainty, the concluding weeks of November brought good tidings, with two major pharma companies announcing the success of their vaccine trials. At once, the thick fog hanging over the “future” seemed to lift a little. With the UK being the first nation to approve imminent mass vaccination, a “post-Covid world” may soon become a reality.

So what is this ‘post-Covid world?’ 

In thinking about a ‘post-Covid world,’ we are participating in an act of imagination. That many of us have already begun actualising these imaginations, despite the very real threat of infection, leaves us with a crucial question: is a ‘post-covid world’ one where we live alongside the disease, or one where it is eradicated? Many reports suggest that the coronavirus is here to stay. If indeed, this turns out to be true, what might a transition – a seamless transition – into such a world look like?

Here, the word “seamless” is of consequence. What exactly is “seamless?” And for whom is such a transition “seamless?” One of the newest buzzwords, buzzphrases this year was “Work from Home.” White-collar employees readily embraced working from the comfort of their living rooms and balconies while wearing formal shirts with shorts underneath. Sometimes, a mischievous child or a rowdy pet made an appearance to break the monotony of Zoom meetings. Most encouragingly, persons with disabilities, who had previously been excluded from employment, were now assimilated into the workforce, owing to the many accommodations and adjustments companies introduced in order to ease working from home. 

But working from home was also not a universal reality. If the lockdown was an extended vacation for those sitting comfortably at the upper crust of society, it was also a period of extreme struggle – confronting the virus on a daily basis was a matter of putting food on the table for thousands. Delivery persons continued to visit houses, probably even more than usual. Doctors, nurses, and healthcare systems faced unimaginable amounts of pressure. Government support for these services in several countries was negligible, if any existed at all. 

Globally, the long months of the pandemic have also been accented by some of the largest protests tackling racism, abortion rights, and agricultural inequalities, all while unemployment and sickness rates were skyrocketing. The pandemic also brought to light numerous social fractures that were previously invisible, or cleverly concealed. Namely, identity-based discrimination was accentuated by the biased identification of specific social vectors of transmission; Muslims and the poor in India, immigrants in the USA, and East Asians globally all became ‘Covid bodies’. As an “ideology of transmission,” this is deeply controversial. Alongside this, increased domestic violence, stark social disparities in the access to education and technology, and the inherent violence of working in a system that is obsessed with productivity under any condition became immediately apparent.

‘Liminality,’ in anthropology, is defined as a transition between two relatively stable conditions, and is characterized by ambiguity and disorientation. One is tempted to think of these lockdowns as liminal, then, for with the vaccine on the horizon, surely we’re at the end of this period of uncertainty. It provides a convenient vacuum within which to locate the many social fractures that came to light, and allows us to think – rather naively, perhaps – that along with the disease, these undesirable “social symptoms” of increased classism and racism, too, will be eradicated. While jobs for healthcare professionals and delivery persons became even riskier during the pandemic, one is also compelled to think about whether accommodations in other forms of employment will be retained in a “post-covid” situation.

In fact, this ‘post-covid world’ that we are now venturing into bears eerie resemblance to the world before the coronavirus made an appearance. In other words, could we possibly be returning to an “old” normal, rather than a new one? It is clear that a transition into a “post-covid” world has already begun. However, it is also irrefutable that it is not “seamless,” and can never be. Even as we have these realisations about the eroded state of our social fabric, we are left with few answers on the nature and possibility of change. Where does this knowledge leave us? In the face of economic recession, messy politics, heightened surveillance, and deteriorating ecologies, a return to an innocent-sounding “normalcy” is probably the most harmful way forward. Perhaps now is the time to return to the drawing board instead, to investigate the live wires, loose screws, and rusted cogs in our systems that reduce us to categories and the statistics that mete out and endure violence. 
Looking back at the past, different pandemics have been remembered differently. While the black death was forever etched into the world’s collective memory, the Spanish Flu of 1918 is termed the ‘forgotten pandemic’. It was eclipsed by a backdrop of massive global political shifts, despite it infecting a third of the world’s population. Who is allowed to forget a pandemic, really? More importantly, when are we allowed to do so? In the same way that nations’ adaptation to a world with the coronavirus was deeply varied, and the transition to a “post-Covid world” appears far from seamless, the ending of the pandemic too, will certainly be staggered. Many feverishly hope that the end of 2020 brings with it the final days of the pandemic. Given the speed at which we are ploughing ahead, foregrounded by the socio-political unrest, ecological damage, and economic crises, will Covid-19 too, become a “forgotten pandemic?”

Picture Credit: Shutterstock

The writers, Reeva Dani, Tanvi Gupta, Teesta Rawal, Trisha Nagpal, and Vinay Chandnani, are students of the sociology course ‘The Plague Town: Politics of Pandemic’ at Ashoka University.

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