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To go or not to go out in times of Covid: Invitations to socialise are back

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A friend’s birthday is looming, and I am in an agony of indecision.

A couple of months ago, life was simple. In the hazy period before Covid-19, I used to scramble for excuses to ditch the occasional party at the last minute (“Deadlines!” “My boss just called!” “Deadlines!”). But the pandemic had done away with the need for such mental contortions. A birthday meant no exertion greater than a video call, done from the comfort of my sofa. I may or may not have ghosted a few of those, too, but there was no longer a battle between my instinct to avoid gatherings of more than three people and the FOMO that usually pushed me out. This was one aspect of an otherwise debilitating crisis I was convinced I could coast through. Everyone was social distancing, however grudgingly, and the hashtags were all about #stayinghome, #stayingsafe.

Alas, those days are now long gone. India might be racing to set new global records of daily Covid cases but you wouldn’t think so, if you looked at Instagram. Weekends have once again come to mean parties, picnics and even — shudder — hugs. Hugs! And where are the pretty blockprint masks we ordered in bulk from FabIndia? Not in those pictures, I can tell you that. It’s both funny and somewhat bewildering — we huddled indoors, washing groceries furiously and waxing eloquent about the joys of slow living when daily cases were 500-1,000, but now that it’s skyrocketed past 90,000 cases a day, we are partying like it’s 2019.

When a friend mentions in a WhatsApp group that he had been out for dinner at a restaurant, another marvels that these are once again options — sure, he sat outdoors and it sounded like all precautions were in place. But hadn’t we subconsciously been convinced we will next dine out only in 2021? Or, was that just me? Others are organising board game nights, weekend getaways and even holidays abroad whenever flights resume, to make use of “killer deals” (no pun intended). As I discuss morosely with a friend in Mumbai who has been similarly house-bound, it’s as if everybody else got the memo that the pandemic is over. You can feel smug about isolating only for so long — it gets increasingly tougher with each photo of revelry you scroll past. It’s a bit like being the only sober person at a party.

And the challenges are mounting. The invitations to socialise are back in circulation (like the virus), each one getting harder to turn down than the last. So far, friends have been sympathetic but sad emojis have started to creep into the replies to my refusals. How long from that to exhortations to stop being a wuss and “live your life”, I wonder miserably. Will “covidiot” take on a new meaning, from those who refuse to wear masks to those who refuse to take them off? You might argue that a friend will never actually spell that out but I will imagine that’s what they are thinking and, I ask you, is that any better?

At one level, it’s not hard to see why people no longer want to talk about social distancing, let alone do it — it’s over five months since we entered the first lockdown and everyone’s fed up to the backteeth. The so-called “new normal” is not normal, whatever we try to title it, and we all want a break from it. Experts call it crisis fatigue and quarantine fatigue, and it’s the reason there has been a spurt in secret parties, from London to Paris to Goa. Large-scale protests are taking place in cities like Berlin against the pandemic restrictions, and it’s not just far-right loons and conspiracy theorists who are attending. Like a 25-year-old at an illegal rave near London told a New York Times reporter, “Everybody just wants to get out now, I suppose.” In India, too, the new messaging is all about “unlocking” — so even as Bengaluru races to claim the spot of the city with the most number of active Covid cases, it has simultaneously thrown open bars and pubs for the first time since the end of March. How long can a soul hold out against the siren of microbreweries like Arbor?

In the last month, I too had dipped my toes in the water in the form of walks in the park with friends, talking to neighbours from a couple of metres away and, in one particular moment of weakness, dropping in at a friend’s on the understanding that we sit in the balcony. They were people I knew had been similarly cautious but as the evening wore on, the distances kept reducing while my guilt kept increasing. Hence, the added anxiety about the impending birthday.

When I share my dilemma with my sister-in-law, cloistered in Chennai, she threatens to out me to the rest of the family. I quail at the thought, considering how I had been sanctimoniously lecturing my parents not to step out unless it’s absolutely necessary. She ends the conversation with a heartening remark about a 40-something acquaintance who passed away due to Covid, lest I be foolhardy enough to think that my age will be my Corona kavach.

Soon after, I see a tweet from a doctor about how 17 octogenarians who had gathered for a celebration had all tested positive, because they took off their masks to eat and drink. That was the “divine intervention” I needed, I thought , as I sent yet another “regret” and braced for more pictures.

I know that things are not going to get any easier, with everything opening up, from gyms to malls, while I might still be stuck watching the world wag past from the window or my mobile screen. But I have decided to put my faith in the honourable health minister who has assured us that Covid will be under control in India by Diwali. I am not sure what this confidence is based on but I suspect it might be his friends’ pictures on Instagram.

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