Living together yet staying apart in a virus-infected world

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on May 15, 2020 Published on May 15, 2020

Ticket to elsewhere: Modern society relies on the fact that people and things will go from one place to another across vast distances   -  ISTOCK.COM

Ending modern globalisation as we know it would not keep us safe from Covid-19, but a return to the “normalcy” of an unequal and fractured world will be unfortunate

*Our world has shrunk immensely.

*Covid-19 has stopped travel: between cities and districts, and certainly between countries.

* This contraction of geography is temporary.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has brought all kinds of travel to a halt. We’ve grown very familiar with the walls of our apartments or houses — if we are lucky enough to have them. Our homes now trace the borders of what can feel at once like a sanctuary and a cell. In New York, where I live, social distancing requirements still allow us to leave our homes and move about the city, a freedom I greedily use to take my toddler to the park. But I haven’t yet braved public transportation to visit family quarantining mere kilometres away. The circumference of my world has shrunk immensely. On the street, people eye each other warily, keeping their distance six feet apart. New Yorkers live in the city for its unexpected collisions and encounters; now, we stay apart even when we share the pavement, swaddled in our nervous little kingdoms of air.

Covid-19 has also stopped travel more broadly: Between cities and districts, and certainly between countries. One of my son’s favourite activities at the end of the day is to watch the planes skimming over our building, through the clouds, on the flight path to LaGuardia Airport. Since the outbreak took hold in the US, air traffic has dried up entirely and there is not a plane in the sky during his bedtime. Family and friends in far-flung places feel out of reach and further away than they did before. I have lived a fairly sedentary life in recent years, hunkered down with a small child at home, but even then I always had the sense that there were places we could go to, roads that led elsewhere and to others. My son considers the jet-less sky at night and suggests that all the planes must already be asleep.

This contraction of geography is temporary, of course, and not for me a particular source of hardship, especially in light of the difficulties the pandemic has foisted on others. But it does make me acutely aware of the ways in which the presumption of travel seems to undergird the world we live in. Whole industries — in particular, those related to tourism — rest on the assumption of travel across borders. So much else in modern society — from vegetables to universities, boutique literary festivals to supplies of medicine — relies on the fact that people and things will go from one place to another across vast distances.

A common refrain now among pundits and prognosticators is that the pandemic might be bringing the era of globalisation to a close. Countries may respond to the shocks of the virus by tightening controls at their borders, making themselves less vulnerable to disruptions in foreign supply chains, transforming their domestic economies to become more self-sufficient. At least in the medium term, the physical worlds we live in are bound to become a little smaller, a bit more circumscribed. We will be wary of possible contagion in public spaces and venues, or even in the houses of loved ones and neighbours. We’ll think twice before hosting a dinner party. Long-distance travel of any kind will seem foolhardy. Even after the end of the lockdowns, we will find ourselves “sheltering in place”.

Ending modern globalisation as we know it would not keep us safe; plagues swept through continents in the past without the benefit of planes, industrial supply chains, and the dense concrete jungles of metropolises. But when vaccines are widely available, when the threat seems to have truly passed, should we welcome a return to “normalcy”, to the world as we knew it?

I think that would be unfortunate. This crisis has revealed the deep inequalities in every society. Indians are now familiar with the scenes of migrant workers stranded in stations or condemned to long marches on the roads to their homes faraway. Surely, their prospects for better lives should not be dependent on moving to cities where their labour is exploited, where they are treated as disposable? Governments in India and elsewhere in the developing world must consider other models of development that also emphasise boosting agriculture and economic opportunities in rural areas.

In the US, the most vulnerable people to the pandemic are “essential workers,” people who make day-to-day life tick along while the middle class complains about being trapped at home. These people are disproportionately from minority groups, mostly black and Latino, as well as migrants from all over the world, who live in crowded quarters in cities where housing is very expensive. Their labour may be essential, but society doesn’t deem their welfare to be nearly as important.

The planes will return eventually and my son will be able to trace the arc of their descent into New York from faraway places. But if the communities those planes fly over remain fractured by inequalities, so grotesquely distorted by the imbalances in the economy, then we will have learned nothing from the cold truths of the pandemic.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

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Published on May 15, 2020
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