No Spitting, No Crowds: Will Coronavirus Fulfil the “Shanghai Dream” We’ve Been Dreaming for So Long?

Social Commentary

No Spitting, No Crowds: Will Coronavirus Fulfil the “Shanghai Dream” We’ve Been Dreaming for So Long?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I didn’t wear any pants to the wedding of one of my oldest friends. His parents, family members, and distant relatives were all in attendance, and so was I, wearing loud superhero-themed boxer shorts. It didn’t matter at all though, because nobody could see me from the waist down anyway. The entire ceremony was conducted on a Zoom call; a web link replaced the invitation card, the venue was simply “the internet”, and guests could log in to watch the couple tie the knot from the comfort of their living rooms instead of awkwardly trying to eat from a dinner plate while avoiding the photographer, no thanks to coronavirus.

The Zoom wedding was the first social function I attended since the coronavirus pandemic that changed the way we live, and though it was surreal, I have a feeling it won’t be the last such experience. At every level, the coronavirus has disrupted normal patterns of human behaviour, in some cases perhaps irreversibly.

I have a feeling that some of the changes will outlive the pandemic that brought them about in the first place. Personally, the concept of ordering take-out, once an almost daily habit, now feels alien to me. Even though some restaurants in Mumbai have resumed home delivery, the time I was forced to spend in the kitchen during lockdown has made me realise that both my stomach and my wallet greatly prefer it when I cook at home.

On a broader level as well, there are going to be conscious decisions made by people as a whole to do certain things differently. Going to the movies is a fundamentally different experience, with audiences catching new releases on streaming platforms while at home, rather than sitting in a hall full of strangers.

Perhaps the fear of coronavirus will lead us down the path to a cleaner, more hygienic world.

Musicians and DJs are currently hosting live streams in place of live gigs. E-commerce is thriving, while brick-and-mortar stores are shells of their former selves thanks to social distancing regulations and paranoia keeping customers away. Even political rallies have shifted online, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hosting its first-ever virtual rally during the lockdown.

Is paranoia our “new normal”?

This doesn’t mean these activities are gone forever. The experience of being part of a large audience at an event, or simply being out among people while going about your day, isn’t one that can be replicated at home. But the boosts these alternatives will have received during the months of the pandemic will be equivalent to years of progress otherwise.

Historian and author Yuval Noah Harari, in his essay titled “The World after Coronavirus”, writes, “That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.” While Harari was referring to state surveillance and radical concepts like working from home and at-home schooling, the principle applies equally to social events and cultural norms.

On the matter of cultural norms, perhaps the fear of coronavirus will lead us down the path to a cleaner, more hygienic world. Recently, while standing in line outside a shop, I saw something interesting. A man in the queue loudly cleared his throat, pulled his face mask down, and spat onto the footpath. Public spitting is as common as jaywalking or littering on the streets of an Indian city, and most people turn a blind eye to it. Or at least, they used to. No sooner than the man had spit on the footpath did I and several other shoppers in the queue immediately start scolding him about the irresponsibility of his actions. Later, when I was walking home, I found it funny that a microscopic virus has brought to attention something we’ve been ignoring for decades.

Brave new world

With all the advice we’re constantly receiving about wearing face masks, staying at home, and stopping the spread, the virus is ensuring that individuals think not only about themselves, but also the collective.

Even as simple an action as wearing a face mask isn’t meant for your own benefit, but to protect those around you.

Even as simple an action as wearing a face mask isn’t meant for your own benefit, but to protect those around you. Social distancing adds a layer of safety to human interaction, but also grants people some much needed personal space in India’s crowded cities. From tiny gestures like these, to larger-scale community-driven efforts like food drives and charity for underprivileged groups, the coronavirus seems to have tapped into a hitherto undiscovered vein of altruism in society.

As our behaviour patterns change, so will the physical shape of the world we inhabit. During the pandemic, we’ve seen photos of children playing in designated squares in the playground, beachgoers tanning themselves in roped-off patches of sand, and people eating at restaurants separated by a transparent divider. Such measures are in place in countries across the globe, and are likely to be around even after the virus fades away, if only due to a lingering fear. Restaurants won’t be seating guests at full capacity and mandatory empty seats at a theatre will be a common sight.

A column published in BBC Future under the title “How Covid-19 Could Redesign Our World” states that “although we may have to wave goodbye to the lively, crowded bars, theatres and gyms that we used to love, at least for some time, we also have the unique opportunity to rediscover what togetherness means in new spaces”. For me, it means being able to attend a memorable function like a wedding in boxers. Change is coming in nearly every sphere of our lives whether we want it or not, and so it is best to adapt to it with a sense of optimism.