‘Social distancing’ is the new norm. Just how is our regular Lahori faring at it?
My father sat quietly in the car, indignant and arms crossed, as I drove him home from his shop one Saturday afternoon. He was upset with me because I came all the way to Township, just to get him and take him home.
I’d insisted that he stop going out. There’s a pandemic on, I told him, and he’s at a particularly high risk of contracting a scary new disease. This disease has no cure, affects people his age, and with his underlying health conditions most severely, I explained. He brushed me off, insisted that he understood the seriousness of the situation, and that he’ll be fine. So, he was upset that I came to take him home.
This, I realised, would come to characterise many people’s attitudes, starting a few days later when the Punjab government announced a two-week lockdown across the province. (The lockdown has been extended by another couple of weeks now.)
Since then, people’s everyday lives have been disrupted significantly. Only essential businesses are allowed to remain open — grocery stores, pharmacies, etc — and at the time of filing this article, those too can only remain open until 5pm every day. Businesses across the city, especially small shopkeepers, are suffering because of having to shutter, on account of being non-essential. Many people are working from home, while some have even been laid off, which is borderline criminal at a time like this.
Leaving the house to go get essentials like groceries or medication has gone from mundane to surreal. The streets have become eerily empty and quiet, almost post-apocalyptic even. The big-chain grocery store that I go to now scans people’s temperatures before allowing them in. Facemasks are ubiquitous.
My brief excursions out of the house are also incredibly stressful, marked with urgency and planning so as to minimise the amount of time spent in public. I notice the size of shops more, to account for whether there is the possibility of putting space between me and other people. I wince whenever anyone touches their face. The sight of a person — any person — has me constantly evaluating how I should navigate physical space, based on how close I may need to be to another human being.
Is it worth walking past someone in a store to pick up an item that’s four feet away? Or should I walk into the aisle from the other end just to avoid possible contact? Is it worth standing at the counter of the pharmacy to get quicker service? Or should I stand a few feet away, lest I bump into someone else standing at the counter? All of this relentless mental processing is courtesy of the need of the hour: social distancing.
Is it worth walking past someone in a store to pick up an item that’s four feet away? Or should I walk into the aisle from the other end just to avoid possible contact? All of this relentless mental processing is courtesy of the need of the hour: social distancing.
Social distancing dictates that people physically distance themselves from friends and family, ideally staying home. In public, they should stay at least six feet away from other people. This is the only way that the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 can be slowed down enough to make the load on healthcare manageable.
Predictably, people have been recognising and implementing social distancing differently.
A cursory look at social media will reveal hashtags and filters that display the words “Stay home” prominently, with articles about how to “flatten the curve” — a theoretical illustration of the exponential rate at which the novel coronavirus spreads being stretched out over a longer period — making frequent rounds. People appear to understand their own part in the spread of the highly contagious disease and are therefore trying to act responsibly.
However, many more people, it seems, are not. WhatsApp groups are rife with panic and misinformation, both in themselves very contagious in a pandemic like the current one. Outside of social media, not many people seem to be proactive about social distancing. I personally have been to at least three pharmacies recently where the shopkeepers themselves were either not wearing protective gear or had no cognition of keeping their distance. Even after the lockdown, my uncle continues to go to the mosque for prayers. Older people in general, those in my father and uncle’s generation, seem to be insufficiently concerned.
That this is the case in a country like Pakistan, where the concept of personal space does not have much social capital, and personal hygiene in general not as much implementation, is not altogether surprising.
It is, nevertheless, frustrating; and very, very distressing, because in a pandemic like this, the contagion that’s endangering everyone’s life is without conscience or mercy. It will not skip one person over another, just because they don’t feel susceptible to it. This is a force of nature and should be regarded as such. This ultimately means that, at present, your health and well-being are in the hands of people other than you; like a warped game-theory exercise playing itself out.
Naturally, people are concerned. Everyone I speak to is on a spectrum of emotions, with a kind of manic Zen optimism on one end and utter despair on the other. No one knows what to do or what to expect. No one knows how long things will continue like this. No one has any plans any longer. Everyone is in a state of limbo or, as one friend put it, “you just are.”
The doom and gloom notwithstanding, the pandemic has also had a curious silver lining: an increased desire for community and connection. There’s been an uptick in the use of video conferencing applications as people have been making more effort to stay in touch with friends and family, from the comfort of their own homes. Posting video conference screenshots has even become the new Instagram craze. Those who play video games online have slowly been finding that more and more of their friends are available to play. Local artists are hosting frequent livestreams online, even concerts.
That’s not to say that staying at home has become the new normal. What started as a welcome reprieve that allowed people an opportunity to focus on themselves — whether spending time that they normally did not have, because of having to be on the move constantly, on activities that they enjoy, or reconnecting with people they care about from the comforts of their homes — has slowly started to lead to cabin fever for many people.
As the number of Covid-19 cases in the Punjab ramps up, the idea that one has no control and can only watch the inevitable happen has certainly challenged people’s sense of normalcy. However, there is still hope, as people rally around one another, focusing on what brings them closer at a time when they necessarily have to be physically apart.