Every Dark Pandemic has a Silver Lining (No, Really)

I think we can all agree that the past six months have been spectacular. By that, I mean they’ve been a spectacle to watch in shock and horror. Forests burned across three different continents. In India, human-engineered pollution resulted in metrics that literally spin off the charts of any standard measurement. Politically divisive rhetoric and legislation have set ablaze communal violence, leaving in its ashes the charred, blistered remains of that already-elusive interfaith harmony we love to advertise.

All over the world, these and other sudden developments have emerged from and impacted the environment, politics, society, and health. They have perplexed and terrified us. They have turned us into helpless, anxious observers. Before we have heard of the satisfying resolution of one major calamity, another one has lined up in its place and sprinted off with the baton. With one thing after another, as Indian, the last six months in particular have felt like the world just couldn’t catch a break.

And now, there’s a new thing. And it’s one we can definitely catch. You know exactly what I’m referring to. You and I are barraged with the name of this disease every time we glance at our phones, pick up a newspaper, switch on the TV, or venture warily outside. So in the interest of keeping our ears from bleeding from incessant repetition, I’m not going to say its name. I don’t need to introduce it or describe the absolute insanity it has created directly and indirectly all over the planet. We’re all seeing it, if not living it too.

TL;DR: the world has been choking for a while, and now it’s coughing too.

We can’t do much, except follow those guidelines we’ve been force-fed so much we’ve practically memorised them, starting from “vampire sneezes” and ending with the newest song/mantra to recite while washing your hands, taking a pit stop at “your face is lava.” We can also create distance: from crowded places, at-risk people, and WhatsApp’s virulent fake news that spreads at a rate that would put this disease to shame.

But there’s one other thing. We can try to focus on the upside of this crisis, hard as that may be. Positive thinking helps keep your head above the water. It makes it harder for anxiety to chip away at your sanity and well-being, and it makes it easier for you to cope and remain resilient. We know stress hurts immunity, and avoiding it can help strengthen our immune systems.

And putting aside for a minute its potential impact on mental and physical health, I also want to focus on the bright side because that’s what makes the most sense to me. I am a glass half-full, rose-coloured lenses kind of person. I believe wholeheartedly in positive affirmations and putting good thoughts into the universe. I am that annoying person on a group vacation who asks everyone to go around and say their favourite thing about each day. I like to count my blessings and even through tears (especially through tears), I force myself to list all the things I have to be grateful for.

Of course, I do my fair share of whining about things that have almost zero consequence. Uber drivers calling to ask what my destination is before deciding whether to bail on me, three-word replies to my thesis-length texts, and movie theatre employees confiscating the snacks I’ve so masterfully tried to sneak in, will inevitably lead me to launch into a long rant that no one asked for.

But when it comes to what’s important, I try not to complain. Anyway, for the most part, I have little to complain about. I have a loving family, a job to go to, friends I adore… the list is really, really long. I’m happy for my optimism (because of course I am, that’s kind of my point). It’s helped make bad situations a little better, and good ones even more gratifying.

Some days or weeks or months are admittedly harder than others. Yet that shouldn’t stop us from trying. So I’ve made it a side goal — in addition to balling up my hands in a fist to keep from touching my face or calling up pharmacies every morning to ask if their sanitiser stock has been replenished — to cope with this virus by scavenging for silver linings. Here are some.

The environment is getting a breather. This is something we’ve all heard about. People have either been too sick to work, or forced to work from home. That has meant fewer outdoor movements, fewer factories up and running, fewer cars on the street, and fewer people flying. Not surprisingly, emissions have fallen. I wish it didn’t take people to be seriously sick and dying to get the environment to be a little less sick and dying. But Mama Earth needs all the help she can get right now. So I guess whatever the reason, that’s worth being happy about.

The meaning of “irony” has never been clearer. If anyone was confused about what the term meant, they never have to be, ever again. Earth has swooped in like that young, hot (it is still burning up) English teacher from the movies with a practical example that will change the way their students think about the term forever. The whole, entire world has been shaken to its core. We’re panicking, we’re fighting, and we’re twiddling our thumbs because we have nowhere to be and not much to do. We’re wary of every tickle in our throat and suspicious of anyone and everyone in close proximity. Less people want to — and can — fly, public transport is ever emptier, and no one will set foot on a cruise ship for a long, long time. And the reason isn’t a massive pop culture phenomenon. Or political developments or nuclear warfare (yet). Or even by the urgent need to protect the environment whose welcome we have already overstayed. The thing that’s brought the Earth’s 510 million square kilometres to its knees is a mere, teeny-tiny, literally-microscopic virus. If that’s not irony, I’m not sure what is.

Our capacity for creativity has skyrocketed. In a time of social distancing, artists and musicians have found an innovative solution to continue sharing art: virtual live streams of performances. Of course, they aren’t the only ones who’ve adapted to this crisis with heightened creativity and imagination. Fanned by overzealous media everywhere but especially on Indian news channels, regular people have responded with bizarre, wildly creative rumours about the origins, spread, and prevention of the illness. Like the one that Patient Zero was bitten by a bat, which miraculously made them a mutant, Batman, and severely ill, all at the same time. Even I know this rumour-monger is conflating Batman logic and Spiderman logic; that’s how you know this is bad. Weirder still, I’ve heard rumours that fire can destroy germs, and so by extension, we should burn a Holika* bonfire to keep this disease at bay. Putting religious dogma aside, what is the logic here? That hanging out in a tandoor will keep you safe? (Good for your stomach, bad for the virus — it’d be a win-win.) I’m not really sure. But I do admire the creativity that went behind cooking up a theory like this, and am impressed at how much the imagination abilities of our generation have flourished since the start of the spread of this virus.

People will finally learn proper hygiene. There has never been this much information so readily available on how not to Trojan germs right into your own body. If you hate reading, no worries: you can even hear an abridged audio version if you live in India and make a phone call to anyone at all. After all this dies down, we should all be smarter and more careful about how to curb the spread of colds and other, more benevolent contagious illnesses. Or at least, we can hope. If people don’t cover their mouths when they cough now, they never will. And to be honest, from what I’m seeing around my office and in public spaces, some people never will.

I now no longer have to hide my germophobia! It’s finally socially-acceptable to glare at people sneezing into the limited usable air we have in Delhi. I don’t have to find an excuse to not shake hands with creepy/dirty looking dudes anymore. When I sanitise and clean down airplane seats, it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s so easy. I’ve finally found a way to accept and honour my hypochondriasis and OCD tendencies.

FOMO is dead — for now. With (most) people taking social distancing seriously, there’s not a lot going on. Classes have stopped, event organisers have sent out reluctant emails, and even weddings are postponed. Cancel culture has taken on a new meaning. On one hand, this makes me sad. I do miss my dance classes and I am craving going out to a cultural event or dressing up just to stuff my face at a wedding. At the same time, I feel liberated. I don’t have FOMO anymore because there’s nothing to MO on in the first place. Nobody is having all that much fun. Now, I can commit to being too lazy to go out. Now, I can stay in on a Friday night watching Netflix with a face mask on and feel zero shame… because staying at home is the healthy thing to do.

We’re forced into staycations. And they’re not so bad. In a non-virus scenario, I’m someone who rushes out the door as early as possible on weekends, eager to seize both the day and the city. It usually makes me immensely restless to stay inside during daylight hours. But under these new circumstances, I’m liking being indoors more than I thought I would. Most recently, a visit to my parents in the Maldives happened to coincide with a nationwide lockdown. The virus put a pin in my plans of lounging by the ocean, sipping cocktails and snacking on seafood, snorkeling and scuba diving, and lapping up all the spa treatments I could get my hands on. Even if I tried to flee to a neighbouring holiday island, I legally couldn’t. Eating at restaurants and visiting the few touristy spots in the country were also obviously out of the question. It was disappointing, but by no means a bad situation. I had my family, a fresh new environment, and zero outside distractions. If nothing else, I’d been given the gift of more quality time with my parents and sister. I reveled in the opportunity to lounge around, drink endless cups of tea, and watch TV whenever I want. I also worked on my first ever painting under my mom’s tutelage. And I found the time to write; you’re welcome!

But of course we don’t want to be bored either. Stuck together with little external stimulation, we’ve found creative ways to make the most of our time and also not want to tear our hair out from cabin fever. Most nights, we plan and host an elaborate night of experimental cocktails, dinner, dessert, music, and fairy lights just for ourselves. We also have big plans for a home spa day and a game night. We’re already working on little interior decoration projects all over the house. And in breaks between all this unproductive productivity, I can walk down to this town’s tiny strip of beach, or gaze at that day’s edition of a stunning sunset. Even if it’s not the one I’d envisioned, my vacation has turned into a pretty wonderful opportunity to enjoy being at home. Not bad for a forced staycation.

This is an opportunity to reflect inwards. I’ve used the past few days to ponder over the people in my circle who really matter. These are the people for whom I’d be willing to go out and risk exposure to potential illness, if they needed something from me. They’re the ones I won’t hug even though I want to, for fear of making them sick. I’ve also been considering what it means to be a responsible citizen at a time like this, and that staying safe helps not just me but also countless others. I might not die from it or even get it in the first place, if I’m fortunate. Yet that’s no reason to be careless and end up being a carrier for vulnerable groups. So every time I become exhausted by the various rounds of washing and sanitising, regretfully declining hugs, and second-, third-, and fourth-guessing anything I’ve touched or put near my face in the past week, I try to remember there are valid reasons for doing these things. And they go beyond just me.

I’m not sure how long the virus will last. I’m not sure how long we will need social distancing, quarantines, and self-isolation. All I know is that seeing the upside of a tough situation can make all the difference. And so I will cling to the silver linings like a person fighting over toilet paper in a supermarket, no matter what. If we’re all going to catch something contagious in the next few weeks, I’d hope it’s optimism.

* A bonfire with an effigy of the mythical character Holika is made on the night before Holi, the colourful festival that’s featured in any video footage of India, ever.

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