WHEN THE WORLD seems more messy than usual, we can often find solace in books. Today, when social isolation is literally all the rage, I turn to Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016), which is a most touching and empathetic work, combining art criticism with the human need for connection. The opening quote of the book reads, ‘And every one members one of another—Romans 12:5.’ For me those seven little words best encapsulate the human predicament today. The coronavirus outbreak has forced a reckoning—we are all of each other, we are all in this alone, but, more importantly, together. Our civic responsibility is to keep to ourselves.
A message has been popping up on social media; ‘Your grandparents were called to fight in world wars. You’re being called to wash your hands & sit on the couch. Don’t fuck this up.’ The premise of this message is, of course, that the demands placed upon our millennial shoulders at this moment in history ought to rest lightly. But as countries across the globe close their borders, as the shutters come down on all public places, as the infections rise and the death toll escalates, we all feel that knot in our throat. We are staring into the depths of a well in whose waters the future might or might not reveal itself. We’d all carefully arranged our plans like ten pins in a bowling alley only to watch them get decimated by a ravaging bowling ball, dropped from above, which we never saw coming. We try not to panic. We have it so much better than so many others, we tell ourselves. Yet to different scales and measures, we are all afraid. No one is at ease. We all feel on edge. Despite the best of our efforts to safeguard and shelter we are truly exposed.
It is the fear of the unknown that unsettles us. While schedules and routines, plans and promises gave us a sense of control, allowing us to leash in time and measure our days, now we operate in limbo. We don’t know if next week is going to be better than last week, and most of us do assume that the next week will be worse than now. We can no longer tell the line between precaution, paranoia and paralysis. How can we be careful enough and continue with business as usual?
Given these unknowns, it is the first time in our generation’s living memory where individual choice and action are seen to have such immediate and significant public consequences. In South Korea, a ‘super-spreader’ known as ‘Patient 31’, a member of a fringe church called Shincheonji, is said to have been in direct contact with 1,160 people and thus created new clusters of infection. ‘Do not be Patient 31,’ you tell yourself. ‘Do not be Patient 31,’ you tell others.
While it is far too early in the day to draw lessons from the pandemic, we can say that the contagion is forcing us to judge our actions in relation to the whole. Today, coronavirus is teaching us we all have to be responsible citizens. When every person can be a vector, every action of ours carries the potential for harm.
As the headline of a Newsweek article by an anonymous doctor in Western Europe on March 11th warned: ‘Young and Unafraid of the Coronavirus Pandemic? Good for You. Now Stop Killing People.’ The doctor writes, ‘You’re fine, you’re barely even sneezing or coughing, but you’re walking around and you kill a couple of old ladies without even knowing it. Is that fair? You tell me.’ Of course, some will cavil that such fearmongering will do more harm than good. But I find these words serve as caution. They might even make us better citizens.
For the first time, we are being forced to reckon with the magnitude of harm individual actions can foster. And while scientists and activists and Greta Thunbergs have been telling us that each of us are playing havoc with the planet, we’ve seldom let that determine our own course of action. We might allow their words to influence us, but we’ve not permitted them to rearrange our thoughts and ways. They berate us that the straw we sip our pina coladas with will end up in the nostril of a sea turtle and the plastic bag wrapping our apples will choke a cow, but we still fail to accept our own role in the Anthropocene. We refuse to acknowledge that we are all perpetrators and stakeholders in the climate and environment.
In the emptier streets of India, today, we see a glint of change: citizens are paying heed. It is a sign that while people are thinking of their own safety, they are also considering how their actions affect society. While one must acknowledge that in India social distancing carries its own unique class and caste baggage, to see a touristless Varkala beach is to know that people are choosing public safety over personal diversions. In India, the vast majority of our population does not have the choice of social distancing or working from home. But those of us who can must. ‘Stay Home, It Could Save Lives’ is right now the most critical public health message.
Even without government shutdowns and restrictions, today our minds are scrambled. With gyms shut, you find yourself asking, should I go to the park? Can I call a friend to the park? How many friends can I call? How do I get to be with a partner or parents living in a different city? Can I order coffee into office? How will my local coffee shop survive if we boycott him for months? (I ordered three coffees at 3 PM on March 18th, and he said we were his first customers of the day.) Is it okay to order takeout? Do I ask the delivery agent to leave my pizza at the doorstep? Do I offer him hand sanitiser along with the tip? Returning from grocery buying, do I reprimand the autorickshaw driver for spitting at every red light? Should I change my clothes every time I leave an Uber, or read a newspaper or touch a door handle? How can I re-evaluate every previously mundane action of mine and not lose my mind?
In every action of our day we are being forced to make choices. Choices that we were previously not even conscious of making. And it is only by making the right choice that we can hope to flatten that curve. Weeks into the first cases being detected in India we know that we are on the cusp, and only by seeing us as a part of whole can we try and steer this contagion from falling over the precipice.
As we stay home on our couches and wash our hands, I return to Laing and her observations on Edward Hopper, the artist who made social isolation a thing of beauty. Describing his iconic diner painting Nighthawks, she writes, ‘No one is looking at anyone else. Is the diner a refuge for the isolated, a place of succour, or does it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities? The painting’s brilliance derives from its instability, its refusal to commit.’ Laing also notes how in the painting, the diner has no door. The side door perhaps leads to a kitchen. ‘But from the street, the room was sealed: an urban aquarium, a glass cell.’
Today we look at the painting and long for simpler times, a time when a drink at a bar was humdrum and neither an act of ignorance nor misplaced rebellion. We realise our deepseated need to leave our apartments and mingle with others. While Hopper is famed for framing American loneliness, in Nighthawks we now see not urban alienation but urban connection instead. The lack of the door makes this the perfect painting for our quarantined times. We must stay within. By social distancing, by walling ourselves within our glass houses, we execute our responsibility and perform an act of kinship.