Field notes on a Pandemic: Avik Roy Chowdhury

My cousin Rony is a lover of Science Fiction. He is a grossly imaginative fellow in possession of a hyperactive brain that can live in many worlds spanning multiple centuries. He conjures up realities with every minutest practical detail that have an uncanny resemblance to our own except certain eccentricities- some idiosyncrasies of his concocted world are amplified versions of the collective anxiety and existential struggles  of the world we live in that sit askew with the society like deformed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle no longer fitting. It is precisely these invented anecdotes and twisted situations which lie in the shadow of our own truth that render his world a “fictitious” quality and make us call it “far-fetched”. I think it is his way of coping with an equally bizarre and precarious world we inhabit nowadays and prepare himself for any calamity that might strike any moment. He sounds like a prophet when he says, “Our future is not far from these alternate realities, only if the pieces of the puzzle would line up and that’s not entirely impossible. Science fiction is as real as it can get. There are many possibilities, it’s just that we do not know which one we are going to have.”  Although we agree on a lot of stuff but I have always resisted this idea. I have always regarded science fiction novels to be ludicrous- an ostentatious display of someone’s unfathomable power of imagination, too pulp like and sensationalistic ; a rowdy, wayward half-brother of literature. During one of our summer vacations in high school, he once sneaked a copy of “The Andromeda Strain” into my backpack just like a Christian missionary surreptitiously leaves a copy of The Holy Bible in a park bench with hopes of somebody picking it up and transforming overnight to invest into their belief system. I decided to humor him for a change and started reading the book but then left it halfway and gave it back.” An unknown microorganism threatening to wipe off the entire human race! What? Are you like, two?” I laughed, “You really believe in this shit?”

Nowadays when I look at haunting drone footages of the desolate streets and torn neighborhoods of the city of Los Angeles, from the confines of my apartment, trying to escape the clutches of a novel deadly virus, it seems like Rony’s 18 year old vision of a dystopian world has finally come into fruition. With that, science fiction, as a genre, has risen to the ranks of literature in my eyes. Early in February when the initial news of this formidable virus, that was supposedly handed down by Bats and Pangolins, wrecking havoc in China seeped into our general consciousness , citizens, equipped with an insouciant and passive, dysfunctional yet conspiracy theorist of a government,  decided to take matters into their own hands while the President waited for the virus to “miraculously” go away. We gave in to the perils of our times and crisis brought out the worst in us. Trains and buses emptied out; parents forbade their children from playing in ballparks and playgrounds; face masks, toilet paper supplies, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers flew off the shelves; rice, grains, milk, eggs, potatoes, bread, salt even cat food disappeared from grocery stores. People on streets glared at a cough or a sneeze and xenophobic attacks sprung up in places as the President regarded the latest threat to his power-COVID19 as a “Chinese Virus”. The signs of an impending invisible apocalypse were all around. And then there were the defiant ones who continued to flaunt their obscene nonchalance by flouting health officials’ urgent warnings that social distancing is key to slowing the virus’s spread. They traveled to work, worked out in gyms, hugged and kissed strangers, thronged bars, restaurants, concert halls and Disneyland. The state government proved to be more proactive when they declared a state of emergency enforcing  immediate lockdowns and suspension of all public gatherings. The vain, early spring sunshine and the gorgeous Southern California beaches with their emptiness wrote in red letters across the sky- the person most likely to harm you will be your friend, neighbor, lover, parent, or child.

The city went into an indefinite lockdown. We, the inhabitants of LA, due to the sprawling nature of the city, suffer from a perennial sense of disconnect and alienation. Hence the idea of “self isolation” is nothing new for us, it has always been a part of the city’s fabric. The streets became devoid of life overnight except the occasional pizza delivery guys whizzing past on their bikes with backpacks redolent of molten cheese, a discrete shopper wearing a face mask with hands full of grocery bags surreptitiously flying through the empty streets as if to outsmart the virus, frequent ambulances wailing dolefully through the tormented city with a shuddering knowledge of yet another life succumbing to their illness.  Life now depends on our withdrawal from life. Solidarity means remaining in isolation. Humankind , historically notorious for being self-absorbed and in a consummate, monogamous relationship with their cellphones since the last decade , has suddenly started missing each other’s presence and woken up to the importance of body and eye contact on streets and in our homes. Deprivation is the mother of all cravings. Instead of spewing vitriol and viciousness on social media, we have taken to sharing Instagram stories of our mother’s recipes, our hidden talents for singing, dancing, painting, whatsapp forwards on ways of staying healthy and virology tidbits. We, who until recently were buried in our mobilephones, are making  zoom calls to inquire about our wellbeing and in the process noticing facial moles and the length of each other’s noses for the first time. We are signing important deals and consignments through teleconferencing, hosting virtual happy hours and cocktail parties with clients and coworkers, staying connected with friends through online gaming sessions. We sit together as a family to watch old reruns of our favorite soap operas, hold hands as we hear reporters, seated 6 feet apart from each other, asking their same futile questions everyday-“Do we have a cure yet? How long before we can go out again?” The silence of the authorities concerned is ominous. We gather around every evening at 7 near our respective windows and balconies to applaud and celebrate our resilience and perseverance. We are also acknowledging the fearlessness and dedication of healthcare workers, bus and uber drivers for being available at our beck and call, farmers working tirelessly to bring food to our table, underpaid overworked grocery store employees who are risking their lives to replenish the supplies while we queue up everyday carefully standing in the designated circles drawn 6 feet apart, cops, firemen, deliverymen, community artists who are sitting at home without wages and yet performing on Instagram, singing  into iPhones. We are cheering for businesses that have decided to stay closed risking their survival in the market. We are cheering for businesses that have decided to stay open risking their wellbeing. We are cheering for businesses that have put up signs like- “We are here when you need us.”or “We will be open soon. Hang in there” or “Take care of each other”.

I think the loudest cheer and deepest gratitude is probably reserved for the healthcare workers and scientists who are relentlessly guarding the frontiers of life and death. Not only are they dedicated towards ameliorating the pain and suffering of the infected they are also being exposed to a ring side view of the ravages caused by the rogue virus. Worst of all, they deserve all the respect for having to navigate through the fallacies of a faulty healthcare system governed by an ignorant, temperamental, and incompetent President. Hospitals with a meagre ER count are filling up at an alarming pace even after  putting up makeshift wards. At the wake of a ventilator shortage states are bidding against each other to acquire sufficient ventilators for their residents. Nurses are using respiratory masks made out of garbage bags to compensate for the lack of N95s. A paralyzing lack of infrastructure is compelling doctors to make the most dreadful choice of their career- who should live and who should not. Professionals, managing with an inadequate supply of P.P.Es are risking their own health, jeopardizing the wellbeing of their families, putting in extra hours, suffering salary cuts and yet leaving no stone unturned in caring for the victims. They are at the epicenter of all the death and despair- treating the infected ones, advising the homebound cured ones about wearing masks, following sanitation protocols, arranging for hotels and rehabs for patients who need an extra hand with bathing or eating and with a limited knowledge of the virus, fielding questions like “Can we get infected again?” It seems to me they are fighting a dual pandemic here- one due to the contagion, the other one due to loneliness. They are witnessing patients suffer and die a lonely death as well as lonesome patients refusing to leave the hospital even after recovery. The patients’ isolation is somehow mirrored in their own as most of them are distancing from their families. They are all on the same boat, undertaking the same journey. Nearly a couple of weeks back, the country woke up one morning to anonymous placards and banners staked into the yards of random healthcare facilities across states that said-  “Heroes Work Here “ .

While in the comforts of our apartments, as we get used to a simple way of living, once advocated by our grandmothers but rejected as old wives tales by us-working remotely, cooking potatoes and rice that we have acquired for our emergency, conserving, mitigating any food wastage, washing hands assiduously, taking turns in cleaning our door knobs and kitchen counters with a detergent and washcloth, practicing yoga, caring for plants- nature outside heals silently. Levels of CO2 and NO2 have reduced by 40% globally. Animals, normally timid of traffic, have returned to their natural habitats and resurfaced in cities. Coyotes have been spotted in the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, deers  are grazing in home backyards and sports fields in Washington, wild turkeys are wandering through neighborhoods of West Oakland, racoons are frolicking in the beaches of San Felipe. The pandemic has brought man and nature closer as we atone for the felonies we have perpetuated since the beginning of our evolution.   

The pandemic has also brought countries, governments, businesses closer in unprecedented ways. We have realized the fatuousness in the notion of invincibility of any country on account of it’s medical supremacy over another since a microorganism doesn’t need a visa to cross borders. Hence no wall, no strict anti-immigration policy can stop it from spreading. The entire species becomes vulnerable if even a single person in the remotest corner of the world gets infected by an unknown disease. Hence it’s imperative that all nations should unite and invest on a cumulative global healthcare upgrade. Public benefits have become more accessible in the last few days; banks have been ordered to waive mortgage payments for three months; hotels are offering free rooms to health-care workers; restaurants are sending coffee and food to patients in hospitals and students. More than a dozen philanthropic organizations have united to create a seventy-five-million-dollar fund that supports cultural organizations affected by institutional closures and community organizations providing essential services to the city’s most needy.

 Above all, the virus has reminded us that we are in the end just a complex collection of cells made up of more or less the same material as the virus itself. Just as we belong to this planet, so does the virus and as long as we are both a part of nature we must learn to coexist- acknowledge each other’s existence and become immune to each other’s ways. It has shown us we are not the exceptions- nature’s favorite child. Our evolved intellectual prowess doesnot make us supreme organisms in the ecosystem. We are all hapless creatures in the hands of nature and can be obliterated by a mere microorganism. There are still and will always be things beyond our comprehension and hence we can never claim to have conquered it all. All entities of nature are connected by invisible umbilical cords deriving nutrition and vitality from each other, disrupting that chain will result in a mass collapse. As mass graves are being dug in New York City, the outbreak has made us rediscover what it means to be truly human -that we, irrespective of our country, our culture, our religion, our language, our skin color contract the same disease, share the same fears, feel the same pain, die the same death. In such mandated times of isolated solidarity we can all sit at home, miles apart from each other and yet form a common language -coin new phrases like “community spread”, “social-distancing”, “self isolation”, “self quarantine” and redefine words like “going viral” and “curfew”.

The pandemic by pulling hard on the reins of capitalism and bringing our world to a screeching halt has made us stop and cringe at our own ruthless speed . It has brought out that shy, introvert, curious child that otherwise remains closeted in all of us. The child that likes to take lazy walks by the river, observe a caterpillar trace the blade of a leaf, lie on a bed of grass under a canopy of twinkling stars and wonder at the enormity of the universe, read science fiction in flashlight under a blanket and dream of embarking on a space expedition one day. As we sit at home reading a book or watching Netflix or simply waiting in anticipation for things to get back to normal we are basically trying to groom ourselves to adapt into the new world that’s taking shape outside. We don’t know how long the pandemic is going to continue, we don’t know if it will ever end. Deep inside, programmed by all the experiences we have acquired and all the lessons we have learned, we know well enough things will never be the same again. Maybe our present reality, the one we have termed as the “new normal”, should have been the normal rhythm of life. Maybe the virus has finally released us from the abnormalities of our previous trapped existence. Maybe we had been living in a parallel universe this long, governed by the rules of one of those science fiction narratives and maybe the pandemic, as history will testify, has come along to change the course of our civilization and bring us back to where we should have belonged.

Yesterday, I had to go out to the grocery store for some refills. I noticed the days have become significantly longer since the last time I went out when it used to get dark by 6:30pm. It had been raining incessantly since the last 1 week and it seemed as if the clouds, too tired of their daily routine, had suddenly decided to dissipate that evening.  The sun had a brilliant shine to it, as if it was brand new, just at the beginning of a civilization. In the golden twilight, I noticed a toddler chasing a flight of pigeons on a deserted Hollywood Walk of Fame while his mother stood in one corner of the sidewalk probably calling an uber. She had a facemask on but the infant was without one. The gentle breeze played with his blonde curls while he giggled and waddled through the flock with outstretched hands. The pigeons fluttered away and rested again at a distance. The child existed in the glory of that moment, untouched by any pain or suffering, oblivious of death or the coronavirus.  He seemed immortal and life eternal- going on forever with or without our loved ones.

Picture Credits: LA Times