Corporate India seeks to reassure us with daily emails. Ride share apps talk about five layers of safety. Food delivery apps vouch for daily temperature checks of kitchen staff and riders. Departmental stores promise WHO-recommended safety measures and worry-free trials with disposable socks. Eyeglass stores tell me their opticians come with PPE kits. I am even getting letters from CEOs “personally” addressed to me assuring me that India is open for business and I am “in good hands”. All the staff is on Aarogya Setu, our new bridge over troubled waters.
But on the ground, the reality feels a lot more uncertain than the cheerily confident email messages flooding our inboxes.
A friend who decided to brave her hair salon found despite all the promises they made, the receptionist had no mask and the threading lady was struggling with the neck device. When I went to my laptop service centre, we dutifully queued up on the steps in a socially-distanced line and had our temperatures taken but when I met the technician no one sanitised the seat the previous customer had vacated and he blithely swung his own machine around for me to enter my contact information. When I asked a car driver if he got the chance to sanitise the seats between each trip, he said he did it once a day. I couldn’t fault him. By the time he dropped me off, his next ride was already pinging him.
Despite the promise of “contactless delivery”, one courier told me he needed my signature, fished out a pen and a piece of paper from his backpack, a pen and paper that had undoubtedly passed through many hands. “Doesn’t it worry you?” I asked him. “So many people are using your pen.” “What to do, sir?” He sighed. “Company rule.”
It feels sometimes that we have decided to measure safety by reams of paper generated. Early in the pandemic, I went to an ATM and the guard asked me to fill in a logbook which wanted to know when I had been abroad last and for how long. At the laptop service store everyone entered their body temperatures into a ledger. I wondered who would ever sift through this landfill of data or whether this was more a performance of safety than anything else.
This show of safety is everywhere. There are social distancing signs marked inside stores and markets. My local sweetshop in Kolkata was open early in the pandemic. First, it had someone posted at the door with a squirt bottle of pink sanitising liquid. Then one day someone pointed a temperature gun at every customer. Finally, it installed a sanitisation tunnel which worked intermittently before being dismantled. No one bothered about the clusters of people who drove up in their fancy cars and stood in front of the shop enjoying their tea and samosas and mithai, just like yesterday once more except with masks pulled down to their chins. I was amused to see a picture of a Kolkata containment zone. The residents were using the barricades to hang their washing to dry. Indian jugaad puts even a pandemic to use.
To make #SafetyFirst a mantra to live by rather than the hashtag of the day, we cannot rely on just businesses or the government. We too need to step up to the challenge. Too many of us still believe that no matter who is standing in line we need to be served first, that rules are for others. A friend posted a picture from the airport as he awaited a flight to the US. A snaking line of people was waiting to board. Everyone was masked but they were all jostling, social distancing be damned, to be the first on board. No matter how many people stand in line there is always the person who will march up to the counter as if the others were invisible. The need to get ahead of the person next to us, if only by an inch, is ingrained deep in our cultural DNA. It will take more than a coronavirus to get it out of our system.
Corona is a wake-up moment for us as a culture that rules are meant for everybody for a reason and the only way it works is if we all follow them, whether that’s in a slum or a high-rise gated community, both ironically places where the virus finds many hosts. The pandemic might push India to dream of becoming atmanirbhar but it also underscores how dependent we ultimately are on everyone around us.