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Life amidst COVID-19: adapting to the new normal

Authored by D. Saran Prakash, M.A. Disaster Management, Batch of 2017-2019, Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Management (JTSDS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai

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At the stage where we stand today, the entire word is dealing with possibly the biggest health crisis- the novel Coronavirus COVID-19, which has affected almost every country. Holding its epicentre in China initially, this outbreak has swiftly travelled everywhere. Currently, in the record of the countries affected by the virus, United States of America (USA) tops the count of infected person with 16, 48, 961 as on 23 May 2020. Notwithstanding the aforementioned figure(s) accessible to us all, what is alarming is a peek into the situation wherein, under-reporting is stemming the number of cases, and these numbers are predicted to increase in the weeks ahead in India, also considering the asymptomatic patients. Everyday brings with it a yet new discovery about this pandemic, making it constantly changing and ever more complex, while the countries are trying to pull out all the stops to flatten the curve. 


Against this backdrop, in a simultaneously thought process, as the world order appears to be changing from globalization to de-globalization (Haas, 2020), several new theories are being postulated regarding not just the ongoing crisis, but also about the world post COVID-19.


So far, India has been making efforts towards controlling the transmission of the disease by employing its prowess in pharmaceuticals and health science; mass public awareness with the help of digital systems; and a central political command (De, 2020). On 20 May 2020, India counted its 58th day of lockdown. As India courageously attempts to gear up for the gradual lifting up of the lockdown, more than unlocking, it is adapting to the ‘new normal’ that is coming along as a big task. ‘Social distancing’ appears to have become the flagbearer of new normal already and nobody would like to take a risk with regard to that (and rightly so). In big cities and in small cities, a lot is going to change. It might be a mouthful but the following is an attempt to look at what is to come in the approaching months.


Desperate times, desperate measures: sterilize everything

Not just our hands, but everything that we touch or hold is to be sterilized- be it couriered parcels, or books. In China, some books are being sterilized using UV sterilizing equipment. Keeping the new purchases from our excitement of opening and using too is becoming an important part of the everyday drill, as we leave our non-washable purchases in fresh air for at least forty-eight hours. In this context, to combat coronavirus, COVID 19 SANIBOX has been invented to sterilize surfaces of various items of regular use in healthcare and household settings, therefore stopping surface-to-human transmission.


Innovation is a saviour

If we take a brief recap of recent developments in the country during the course of lockdown, we will be able to see that innovation has played a major boon by having introduced us to a few things, that were not seen in the country, before. One example is the solar-powered umbrellas for the police. Another such example is the order for the installation of mobile handwashing stations in various places in the national capital, New Delhi. A similar kind of measure was proposed in Ahmedabad, Gujarat- the portable hand washing station to be made available for vegetable vendors and the milk parlor staff. Further, in an advanced attempt, a pedal-operated liquid soap and water dispenser machine caught everyone’s attention in a matter of days, in Karimnagar district of Telangana.


The skills of human beings and their phenomenal ability to adapt to changing circumstances does not cease to amaze here just yet. Business tycoon Anand Mahindra recently shared a video of an e-rickshaw driver explaining in Bengali, how he modified his e-rickshaw with plastic and metal sheets to create separate seating for four passengers, given the restrictions on public transport.


Discipline and courtesy: Items lost and found in time

In supermarkets and grocery stores, a sense of discipline has become a common sight lately, with a clear absence of anarchic pushing and pulling between the customers. In a freshly streamlined practice, the shopkeepers in Jodhpur (Rajasthan), put up a pad with papers and a pen. The customers queued up maintaining a safe distance from each other are required to step forward, write the list of groceries required, and hand it over to the helpers of the shop, who pack the items up and place at the billing counter, thus reducing the chances of crowding. 


In this context, it is worth mentioning that for consumers stuck at home because of the lockdown, several food delivery services are engaging with retail chains and online grocers to supply groceries. For example, with the help of a mobile application called Noida- Apurti Suvidha Seva, the residents in Noida can get the list of vendors who can supply fresh vegetables and fruits in their respective localities and order accordingly, which will then be delivered at the consumer’s doorstep. 


In these times when the traditional supply chain stands disrupted, several such new linkages with food aggregators can be seen reshaping the known model of relying on wholesalers, distributors and retail stores. For instance, in the initial days of lockdown, Marico Ltd., the maker of Saffola cooking oil reached out to Swiggy and Zomato to satisfy the demand for its brands. 


Many of these emerging solutions to deal with the currently difficult circumstances seem to be likely to stay as a major part of the approaching ‘new normal’.


Contact-less payments

Sometime ago, banks in China were ordered to disinfect cash before issuing it to the public (Zhao, 2020). Cash can indeed become a significant carrier of virus. Understandably, in the times to come, we can expect to experience a spike in contact-less payment- in the form of cards and e-payments. 


Remote work

A current need might as well become a new habit as work-from-home seems likely to stay here even after the lockdown has been lifted. The primary aim of the same will certainly be the realization of social distancing to contain the spread of the disease. Also, it can be seen that many companies are investing in the tools of technology that they have required since long in order to make remote work possible. This, in the times ahead, is likely to boost tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) and cloud technology.


Distance learning

With the sudden shift away from the classroom learning and towards virtual learning as a result of the lockdown and shutting down of schools, there has been a drastic surge in ed-tech platforms. In this context, there is a lingering thought if this mode of learning is here to stay for a longer period of time. 


Tele-health

The unparalleled outbreak of COVID-19 ushered in several challenges for the traditional healthcare systems in India. A major one of such challenges is the inability of many people to consult the doctor physically. It is in situations like these that start-ups like Practo, DocPrime, mFine, CallHealth and Lybrate which were operating telemedicine services in India come to more significance. Establishment of more such tools can be hoped for in the near future, like chatbots which can make initial diagnosis based on the symptoms mentioned by the patient for basic medication. On these lines, it is worthy of our consideration the thought expressed by Ayush Mishra, founder and CEO of Tattvan E-Clinics, in the following words:

“Telemedicine is a sector that bridges the healthcare gap between rural India and urban India. In rural India, where the access to medical facilities, specialists’ opinion and advance healthcare amenities are limited, telemedicine acts as a healthcare provider bringing access to the specialist doctors to these areas.”

Apollo Hospitals Group too tied up with telecom operator Airtel, offering a new feature of free COVID-19 testing. It was introduced as a symptom checker tool that was to suggest if the user was at the risk of COVID-19 based on the responses provided. In this context, while the initial focus was on COVID-19, as we move towards a ‘new normal’, this and such facilities may possibly be extended to other diagnosis as well.


Behavioural changes

As the coronavirus has disrupted every human activity, there is a perceptible change in the manner in which humans are interacting with each other. Our understanding of what is rude and upolished in social behaviour will be experiencing a stark change. As a newly evolved reaction called ‘parasite avoidance’ (Earnshaw, 2020), it is here to stay reminding us to prevent us from maintaining contact with anyone who may be carrying communicable disease. As part of this reaction, we feel disgusted by signs of sickness, regardless the presence or absence of any actual threat to our health. For example, on 18 March 2020, four persons who had just returned from Germany were de-boarded from Mumbai-Delhi Garibrath Express at Palgarh station after fellow passengers spotted home quarantine stamps on their hands. The reaction of the fellow passengers is but understandable, especially now that we are all becoming hardwired to physically distance ourselves from those who could infect us. 

Nevertheless, it becomes significant to highlight here that the overall impact novel coronavirus on manifesting the ‘new normal’ is dependent not only on the nature of the virus, but also on the manner in which the civil society reacts to the challenges ushered in by it. This is to say that the existential tensions in the social structure, the role of media and social media, along with the survival instincts would set up ‘new normal’. Accepting that, we need to be extra careful in establishing this ‘new normal’, to ensure that stigmatizing and discriminating individuals and groups in the society does not take place.

The above mentioned can thus be understood in two ways:

  1. Better hygiene and sanitation etiquettes: In this case, there are lessons that we can learn from Japan, where people follow extremely hygienic measures from a very early age. Washing hands few times a day is a norm, apart from taking showers on a daily basis. Shaking hands, hugging and touching each other is replaced by the Japanese bow. While queuing at a store or awaiting public transport, no one breathes on the back of another’s head, thus maintaining enough distance between two persons. And finally, if a person is experiencing any sort of sickness, they put on a mask so that others are not infected.

  2. Along comes stigma: With an infectious disease, comes along stigma. However, as the disease goes, stigma stays. In this regard, instances of stigma and discrimination against medical personnel have already been witnessed in India. Not only that, when a set of people are tested for COVID-19, those who test negative tend to fall under a sense of suspicion while the demand for segregation of those people away from a larger population seems only reasonable out of fear and desperation. However, the thought to be considered here is that, when people are discriminated against, they fear not the disease or the infection anymore, but the community and its reaction. Therefore, they may shelter the fear of even coming out for testing, should they feel the need to. In that case, the easy transmission of COVID-19 will find an easier way of exercising a multiplier effect with more spread. This will make the situation worse, and lead to increased levels of risk. 

Public privacy

As a necessary measure for containing the virus, contact tracing is being employed as one of the major tools. And again, even this measure is here to stay. This means that, in the times to come, it might also lead to a lot of intrusion in our privacy. An example of the same is the recent guidelines issues by the Airports Authority of India, one of which states that the mobile phones of all the flyers are to be checked to ensure the presence of Arogya Setu application.


Concluding thoughts…

The well-known historian Yuval Noah Harari has observed that pandemics press the fast-forward button on history. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.

Until sometime before, parents worried for their children spending excess amount of time in front of the screens. However, with the arrival of COVID-19, digital future does not seem to be only a topic of science fiction anymore. This ‘new normal’ (in making already) has brought in a step-change in the digital lives of everyone alike. To reduce any potential anxieties arising out of not being able to interact with others, in person, not just for school children, but for other students too, an explosion of online resources and different types of courses is being witnessed. For the most part, this is an exciting avenue to optimize online opportunities of learning. On the flip side however, a deep-rooted concern is on the ways in which socio-economic inequalities result in a digital gap, thus fuelling the fact that not all benefit similarly, after all. 


In the new normal, we can see ourselves adopting a ‘digital everyday’ in which our lives are tracked and monetized in ways that still not everyone fully comprehends. This is to mean that, there is a serious digital divide in which, on the disadvantaged side are the many elderly people (who are at most risk from the virus). 


This pandemic situation has therefore brought to the surface many cracks hidden in the society. The new normal is going to be different from the one we inhabited until now. However, as the crisis exposes faults in our society, we can choose to accept them and work on them to strengthen our weakest links. It is needed that we work towards turning the several challenges of today to lay foundations for a better tomorrow. For example, on 18 March 1968, Martin Luther King, in a speech to striking sanitation workers on the eve of his assassination reminded the world that there is dignity in all labour. As the ongoing crisis is highlighting exactly same by bringing to light the much need to appreciate those workers who are usually invisible and undervalued, it should be taken as a symbol and an opportunity to correct ourselves for our future responsibilities. Dignity for every type of work should be one of the features defining the ‘new normal’ or rather, a ‘better normal’.


On a lighter note, elementary school children in Taiyuan in China’s northern Shanxi province were seen wearing ‘wings’ to maintain social distancing amid concerns of coronavirus. This calls for at least an attempt by us all to make ‘bouncing back better’ with not just new normal, but a rather lively and hopeful normal! 




References


De, P. (2020, April 9). COVID-19, New Normal and India. Retrieved from The Economic Times: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/covid-19-new-normal-and-india/


Earnshaw, V. (2020, April 6). Don’t Let Fear of Covid-19 Turn into Stigma. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/04/dont-let-fear-of-covid-19-turn-into-stigma


Haas, R. N. (2020, May 15). Have we reached peak globalization - and where do we go from here? Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/deglobalization-glovalization-coronavirus-covid19-international-pandemic/


Zhao, J. (2020, February 17). China is sterilizing cash in an attempt to stop the coronavirus spreading. Retrieved from CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/17/coronavirus-china-disinfects-cash-in-a-bid-to-stop-virus-spreading.html


Useful links:


https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/


https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/india-may-see-second-wave-of-coronavirus-outbreak-in-monsoon-say-scientists/articleshow/75345505.cms


https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-coronavirus-lockdown-may-21-2020-live-updates/article31638027.ece


https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/lockdown-4-0-india-covid-coronavirus-outbreak-guidelines-may31-rules-green-orange-red-containment-zones-updates-1678972-2020-05-17


As for efforts to disinfect works, the National Library of China too is currently using isolation and static sterilisation of works, although plans to set up a centralised book return centre and disinfection centre using ultraviolet and ozone disinfection equipment.” (https://www.ifla.org/covid-19-and-libraries)


The duration of leaving newly bought items untouched depends on the survival time period of the virus on different surfaces as explained here: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200317-covid-19-how-long-does-the-coronavirus-last-on-surfaces


https://www.shudhvayu.com/product/covid-19-sanibox-2/


https://www.thebetterindia.com/227103/gujarat-lockdown-solar-power-umbrellas-engineer-sustainable-innovation-india-gop94/


https://www.timesnownews.com/delhi/article/keeping-it-clean-delhi-gears-up-to-battle-covid-19-with-portable-hand-wash-stations/565127


https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/ahmedabad/hand-washing-stations-at-sale-points/articleshow/75240190.cms


https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/hyderabad/telangana-man-develops-foot-operated-handwash-machines-to-keep-covid-19-at-bay-6386193/


https://indianexpress.com/article/trending/trending-in-india/anand-mahindra-shares-video-of-transformed-e-rickshaw-to-ply-passengers-amid-covid-19-6377811/


https://inc42.com/datalab/telemedicine-market-opportunity-in-indian-healthtech/


https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/airport-authority-of-india-issues-guidelines-for-domestic-air-travel-ministry-says-not-final/story-tX9fv3GQfL9hxpQGpPOQ8J.html


https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/masks-will-now-become-symbol-of-civilised-society-pm-modi/articleshow/75387440.cms


https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/govt-to-make-use-of-community-radio-for-covid-outreach/story-1gIuuDnEOjsX1C7LW89vgN.html


https://thewire.in/media/odisha-coronavirus-radio


https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/students-wear-wings-to-maintain-social-distancing-in-china-1.1590047710540?slide=5



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