“Different cultures behave differently. The 1918 influenza changed behaviour in the United States, as people started covering their mouths while sneezing,” Dr. T. Jacob John told Re:Set. He was director of the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Centre of Advanced Research in Virology, and head of the departments of clinical virology and microbiology at Christian Medical College in Vellore.
“Monkeys learn from experience, rats learn from experience, Indians don’t learn from experience. We are a country where children die by falling inside borewells,” he said. “We have a relatively insensitive culture when it comes to human suffering. We’re seeing this happen in other places as well, like Florida in the United States.”
“We can’t predict how society will change, but we can learn by how institutions helped aid in behavioural change, like the time of the HIV pandemic,” he said. “Our main success was Social Behavioural Change Education (SBCE). Now, daily interactions will change if we can institutionally educate everyone about why they need to wear a mask every time they step out the door, sanitize before touching anything foreign.”
Rituparna Patgiri, a sociologist and doctoral candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, spent the last few months working on a paper on how India’s eating out culture is going to change post COVID. She’s already seeing seismic shifts in her respondents.
“Especially in metro cities, many told me they’re scared of going to restaurants and malls,” Patgiri told Re:Set. “Urban youth will start going to natural spots and historical spaces. Many even mentioned outdoor spaces like the Lodhi Gardens [in Delhi] as places they’d want to congregate. It’s going to reverse indoor mall and restaurant culture which rose after liberalization in India.”
Re:Set asked Dr. John and Patgiri about several social interactions and how these will transform in a world where COVID-19 will be a reality for a long time. The caveat, according to Dr. John, is that all these will happen if we have strict enforcement of laws, and the public is convinced that these measures are good for them. The following is a condensed transcript of what they think will be the new normal.
Metros are going to be regulated by an increased number of attendants per station. We will have a fixed number of people per carriage, and no overexcited crowds at the doors to rush in. Those inside will sit and stand two feet away from each other.
The officials inside like the bus driver and conductor will be wearing masks. The trains will run at a slower frequency too, as trains and buses will have to be sanitized with hypochlorite after each trip.
Roadside informal snack joints will die, especially in countries like India where not many of these establishments use gloves. While inside restaurants, there will be a fixed number of chairs and long reservation times.
If we go with our family, we’ll be seated together. But if one goes alone, or even with friends who have been in contact with other spaces, we’ll be seated far away. Most importantly, everyone will be wearing a mask, following the mandatory six feet of separation.
According to Patgiri, the experience is going to be more like her visit to Japan last year. “At a McDonalds there, most tables were single seaters, and it was an official environment. This is more prevalent in Southeast and East Asian nations because they’ve had experience with viruses like SARS,” she said. “There will be paranoia from one’s ability to contract the virus by just engaging with strangers. The lack of trust in the other person will fuel the paranoia and distance further.”
There is going to be immense crowd control. Sanitizers operable by elbows and feet would available every few metres. While the escalators will have an attendant to create distance, and elevators too will run on smaller capacities, being sanitized every few hours.
The biggest change is going to be inside the stores, where some cashiers will have to reposition their counters, and customers will have to sanitize before entering each store. According to Dr. John, we may see a reduction in sales of products like clothes which most customers tend to touch and feel before buying.
Going to work
Essentially, workplaces will have to prevent frequent interaction between colleagues, and the ones which would take place will happen two feet away filtered through masks. This would mean re-engineering of desks, offices and even lunch tables. We won’t even be shaking hands, and ideally, will have regular testing.
All of this, according to Dr. John, depends on how much ‘imagination’ managers exhibit. “Indians are knowledgeable, but we’re poor in imagination. We systematically kill imagination and talent in our schools. All these work situations will need imagination at the lowest level to work,” he said.
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